Monday, January 13, 2020

The Lost Alexander M. C. Smith House - 122 White Street

This tax photograph, taken around 1940, shows the Sunshine Settlement sign on the facade.  The Federal-style iron fencing survives after more than a century.  from the NYC Department of Records & Information Services

In the first decades of the 19th century modest middle-class homes began appearing in the district which would become known Tribeca.  Among them was No. 122 White Street which, like its neighbors, was two-and-a-half stories tall and faced in red brick trimmed in brownstone.  The original owners were financially comfortable enough to afford extras, like the handsome doorway with its wooden columns and ample transom.

By 1841 it was home to Alexander M. C. Smith and his family.  He was a member of the Municipal Police, working from the Police Court in the Halls of Justice--a position similar to a court officer today.  Smith's son followed in the profession.  James L. Smith was listed in city directories as a "high constable."

Alexander seems to have taken a no-nonsense approach to his job.  He was on duty during the sensational Helen Jewett murder trial.  It received nationwide press because of the lurid details.  Helen was a prostitute who was violently murdered by a repeat customer, Richard P. Robinson.

On January 21, 1837 The Herald quoted James D. Hall, who was present in the courtroom, saying "I witnessed the expulsion of Mr. Howard, by police officer A. M. C. Smith--Smith told Mr. Howard he must go out--Mr. Howard replied 'I have a right to be here'--Smith then said, 'I'll be d-----d if you shan't go out,' and he then thrust him violently from the court room."

Robinson, incidentally, despite a trove of evidence against him, walked free.

The Smith family remained in the White Street house for years.  But in 1853 a scandal arose which may have prompted the family to leave.  Smith was accused of paying a $125 bribe to Alderman Thomas J. Barr to ensure his reappointment.  In his affidavit of July 1853 he insisted "I only intended it to go to the aid in the re-election of Assistant Alderman Barr, the next fall."

Six months earlier, on January 28, 1853, the house had been sold at auction.  The new owner rented rooms, and his advertisement on June 28, 1854 in The New York Herald intimated that he intended to run an upright operation.

To Let--Apartments in 122 White Street; One front basement, a parlor and two bedrooms, to a small respectable family; would be let reasonable.  None else need apply.

That group of rooms was available again in April 1860, as well as two attic rooms and three rooms on the second floor.  Among the roomers here in 1861 was John White, who taught in the Boys' Department of School No. 1.  He made a surprisingly comfortable salary for a teacher.  His $1,500 per year wages would equal $44,000 today.

Two years later the house was once again a private residence, home to the O'Keeffe family.  John G. O'Keeffe was a politician and a member of Tammany Hall.  By 1878 sons Henry and Ferdinand J. O'Keefe were making their own livings, Henry listed as a clerk and his brother simply as "agent."

It appears that at least on roomer was in the house in 1880.  John More was arrested "on a charge of stealing a watch from Commodore Nutt," according to the Brooklyn Union-Argue on September 3 that year.  Commodore Nutt was a dwarf who worked for P. T. Barnum and he, like his co-stars Tom and Lavinia Thumb, made a fortune touring with the showman.  The newspaper added that the stolen watch "was given to him by P. T. Barnum."

Commodore Nutt was the victim of John More.  from the collection of the Syracuse University Library
The O'Keefes were followed in the house by attorney John J. Gallagher. whose father was an official at the Tombs nearby.  He had been the candidate for the Labor and Republican parties for Civil Justice in 1887.  On Saturday morning, December 19, 1891, Gallagher was in his office when at around 10:00 he complained of a headache and went back home.  He died in the White Street house a few hours later of a heart attack at the age of just 29.

When this photo was taken in 1938 the Federal elements of the house were amazingly intact, including the entrance.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
By 1895 the house was being used as the Ivy Social Club.  It placed an ad in The Sun on April 2 that year announcing "The Ivy Social Club's baseball team has reorganized for the season, and would like to hear from all teams with players under 19 years old.  Address John Ramond, 122 White street, New York city."

Patrick Cooley, the club's janitor who lived in the house, made extra money by training dogs to catch rats and then selling them.  On February 13, 1898 The Press reported "Yesterday he took a gray tan terrier out for sale."  The article explained that at Madison Avenue and 18th Street he stopped a well-dressed man and touted the dog's talents.  "The man had doubts of the dog's ability, and going back into his house, brought out a rat trap, in which was a huge rat."

The demonstration went downhill from there.  "Cooley took hold of the trap to release the rat, but was not quick enough, and the rat, before the dog could catch it, fastened its teeth in his right hand."  The article concluded "He not only failed to make a sale, but had to have the wound cauterized."

By now the neighborhood around No. 122 had changed.  Stores and missions moved into the vintage homes.  The Settlement Movement had appeared in America around 1890.  It stressed education over charity so that impoverished children and women could independently make their way in the world.   In 1900 V. Corena Furry founded the Sunshine Settlement at No. 60 Baxter Street, just around the corner.  

By 1903 the Transfiguration Lyceum operated from No. 122.  The organization seems to have been a sort of boys' and girls' club with extracurricular activities designed to keep the children off the streets.  There was a boys' baseball team, for example.  On June 8 1904 a notice in The New York Press announced "The Transfiguration Lyceum B.B.C. wants games with teams averaging 18 years."

In 1909 the Sunshine Settlement moved into No. 122 White Street.  That year, on June 19, Margaret Blake Robins was quoted in The Sun "We have never aimed to do 'great things.'  The settlement is simply a second home for working people and their families, where they get music, entertainment, wholesome fun, that makes them sun the streets and tenement hallways and brings out their own talent and individuality."

It was more than that, of course.  Like the Lyceum, there were a baseball team for the boys, a kindergarten, sewing school, and a mothers' club.  Robins said of the sewing classes that the supplies were provided and the students "keep the garments which they learn to make as their own.  No longer do little ones go around with dirty underclothes, or none, as it used to be, and there was 'loafing' and worse things that are unheard of now."

Following World War I the work of the Sunshine Settlement greatly expanded.  In 1921 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac listed its "social center for working girls, young boys and mothers of the neighborhood and has various industrial classes; maintains clubs, vacation funds, library, kindergarten, practical lectures, health classes, medical and otherwise."  

The boys' baseball team was still going strong in 1938 when Dorothy Dassler Furry announced in the New York Evening Post that it was available for weekend games.  "The boys range in age from twelve to fourteen," she noted.

The wooden barrier at the lower edge of this 1938 photo was erected for the construction site of the Criminal Courts Building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library/

That year the entire block across the street from No. 122 was demolished for the new Criminal Courts Building.  The opposite side was next to go, likewise demolished for the Manhattan Detention Complex.  

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