Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Chelsea Relic - 203 Eighth Avenue

In the 18th century the district known today as Chelsea was quiet and bucolic, dotted with farms and summer estates like those of the Rivington and Moore families.  But just five years after the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 was released, Eighth Avenue was extended northward beyond Greenwich Village. By the 1820's houses and shops began appearing along the new thoroughfare.

The 25-wide brick-faced house at No. 203 Eighth Avenue was completed in the early 1850's.  It most likely always had a shop on the ground floor.  In 1855 the families of two blue collar workers were listed here, John C. Hepburn, a carpenter, and William Ben. Eldridge a driver of delivery wagons.  Both men volunteered with the Paulding Hose Company No. 57 on 18th Street nearby.

The proprietor of the store may have already anticipated closing the business in the spring of 1872 when he advertised his four-legged burglar alarm for sale:  "For Sale--A splendid Newfoundland Watch Dog.  Apply at 203 Eighth Avenue."

The following year, on September 13, 1873 an advertisement appeared in The New York Herald:  "To Let--Store No. 203 Eighth Avenue, between Twentieth and Twenty-first streets; good stand for dry goods, cloaks, suits or fancy goods; Lease and Fixtures for sale."

William C. Knapp and John H. Dorris opened the dry goods store of Dorris & Knapp the following year and it would remain in the space for a decade.  Knapp was born in Germany in 1842 and was brought to New York four years later.  He had been working for Charles Heard & Co. on Grand Street for 15 years before striking out on his own with Dorris.

Stores and offices hired teen-aged boys to run errands, deliver packages, and other menial tasks.  The temptation to pilfer goods was often a problem among the low-paid and ill-educated boy.  Benjamin Moore went far beyond that, however.

On June 1, 1877 Knapp sent the teen to the bank with $150 to deposit.  It was a significant amount, equal to about $3,700 today.  He promptly disappeared.  The New York Herald reported "Benjamin did not deposit the money nor did he return to his employer."  He was eventually arrested on June 25 and held at a staggering bail of nearly $25,000 in today's dollars.

Dorris & Knapp was paying $700 a year on the store in 1883, or about $1,500 per month today.  They had seven years left on their lease that year when George Beck purchased the building for $8,450.  But the proprietors did not stay through the term of the lease.  After ten years in business the men separated.  George Knapp opened his own dry goods store in Brooklyn in 1884.

The shop became home to W. A. Hick's shoe store that year.  
Hicks had come to New York from his native England two years earlier and now opened his first store at No. 203.  Despite his youth (he was in his early 20's), he had spent his entire childhood working in the shoe trade and was deemed an expert shoemaker.  The History and Commerce of New York said in 1891 "The manufacture of fine footwear is a branch of skilled industry which has many expert followers in this city...A well-known and deservedly popular west side establishment in this line is that of Mr. W. A. Hicks, practical boot and shoe maker, dealer in fine footwear, etc."

Hicks had a minor run-in with city officials who demanded that a "piece of carpet" be removed from in front of the store in 1885.  It was deemed an "obstruction" of the sidewalk.

Hicks's occupation of the store was relatively short-lived.  In 1887 he moved a block north to No. 231 Eight Avenue.  Owner George Beck may have initiated the move, for he had his own plans for the space.  That year he paid architect and builder C. J. Perry $1,400 to add a two-story extension to the rear.  Upon its completion he opened G. Beck's furniture store in the space.

The furniture store would remain here into the first years of the 20th century.  By 1912 it was home to Bernard Weiss's butcher shop.  That year he was selected by his peers as a committee member to "interest the trade" of New York to form a group associated with the United Master Butchers' Association, according to the American Meat Trade and Retail Butchers Journal.

The Eighth Ave. Department Store had no shortage of goods in its show windows.  photo via the NYC Dept. of  Records & Information Services
In the 1940's The Eighth Ave. 5-10 and 19¢ Department Store was here.  The neighborhood around No. 203 continued to house working class residents throughout most of the 20th century.  In 1960 the commercial space at No. 203 was home to a launderette.  A police report that year happily noted that it had a full-time attendant and it posed no "specific police problems."

The last quarter of the century saw a renaissance of sorts in Chelsea.  The former launderette was home to Bett's Best by 1980.  The food shop was run by Bett Boldt, who had learned her trade at the Connaught Hotel in London.  Barbara Costikyan wrote in New York Magazine on September 8, 1980, "When I served her brownie and a compote of stewed strawberries and rhubarb laced with brandy, I heard soft moans from my guests."

Some businesses attracted by the changing face of Chelsea two decades later were not so welcomed by everyone.  Michael Winerip wrote an article in The New York Times on May 15, 2015 entitled "Chelsea's Risqué Businesses."  He said in part "Longtime residents who remember Chelsea when it was run-down, poor and bohemian have come to see the shops as a nuisance and an eyesore."  Among the businesses he pointed out was Rainbow Station, at No. 203 Eighth Avenue, which markets itself as an "adult superstore."  Its owner, Dumesh Kankanamalage protested that the store was "providing personal items for a lifestyle that harms no one."

The renovated storefront is unsightly and the brick has been inexplicably painted brick red.  Nevertheless the upper two floors retain their venerable domestic appearance. 

photographs by the author

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