Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The 1837 George Van Zile House - 29 Bethune Street

In 1836 a group of men who no doubt knew one another through their interactions in the building trade joined forces to erect a speculative row of six homes on Bethune Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets.  Alexander Douglass and Henry S. Forman were partners in a contracting firm, William Goudey was a carpenter, and Isaac S. Spencer was a builder.   They almost assuredly erected the houses themselves.

Completed in 1837 the two-and-a-half story Greek Revival structures were faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.   The squat attic level of the relatively new architectural style was more functional than the peaked roof and dormers of the Federal style.  Most likely drawing from style books, the builders included upscale touches that revealed these were intended for middle or upper-middle class families.  Doorways flanked by sidelights and capped with ample transoms included paneled pilasters with carved capitals.   The peaked window lintels went a step further than a simple molding, and the areaway and stoop railings were fine examples of the Greek Revival style.

No. 29 became the home of George Van Zile.  It appears that he operated his cabinetmaking shop, G. Van Zile & Co., in the building in the rear yard since he used the Bethune address as his business address as well.   In 1852 he submitted examples of his work to the 26th Annual Fair of the American Institute.  He was awarded a silver medal for "the best newel posts."  At the outbreak of Civil War Van Zile joined the 34th Infantry, Company E.

The well-to-do Hughes family, recently from Ireland, followed the Van Ziles in the house.  George Hughes, given the respected title of "Esquire" by newspapers, had died in Armagh, Ireland before the family left.  Young Alexander Hughes died in the house on October 2, 1869.  The New York Herald announced "The funeral will take place from the residence of his mother, 29 Bethune street."  His wide-spread business dealings were evidenced in the request "Armagh, Ireland; St. Louis, Mo., and Quebec, Canada, papers please copy."

Within two years the house was owned by Wilson Reid, listed in directories as a "cartman."  Given his ability to own his own residence, he probably operated a delivery business rather than simply being a deliveryman.  Anna E. Reid, most likely his daughter, taught in the Girls' Department of Public School No. 44 on the corner of North Moore and Varick Streets.

As was common, the Reid family rented a room in their home.  In 1872 Warren N. Barnes lived here.  He was appointed an Inspector of Elections that year, a highly responsible position.  In 1875 and '76 Louis Feltzer rented the room.  He was a printer with a shop at No. 86 Walker Street.

The family remained in the house until 1887 when Wilson Reid sold it to John Carroll, who owned the saloon at No. 759 Washington Street, conveniently around the corner.

At the time Bethune Street ran from the Hudson River to Greenwich Street.  John Carroll most likely had his business in mind when he and some others petitioned the Board of Street Opening and Improvements in March 1889 to extend it to Hudson Street, thereby making access much simpler.

Like the previous owners, Carroll leased rooms in the house.  In 1890 Lawrence Lynch, listed as a "foreman," and Emanuel M. Hurtado, a clerk, lived with the family.

At the eastern end of the street, on Abingdon Square, was a large factory building.  Fire broke out on the night of April 17, 1891 and quickly grew to an inferno.  It spread to the apartment building at No. 90 Bank Street where seventeen families lived, then to three others on Greenwich Street.  The streets filled with men, women and childre.  Some elderly persons had to be carried out to safety.

Carroll had rushed to the scene early on in hopes to help.  The Sun reported "John Carroll of 29 Bethune street opened his house to the families driven out of their homes in Bank street.  He sent about a dozen people to his home, where his wife took care of them, and then he started home himself."  He got permission from an officer to pass through the closed-off street, but the Good Samaritan not get very far.

"Policeman Coleman ordered him back, and emphasized his command with a thwack of his club on Mr. Carroll's right hand, which broke the thumb," said the article.  The show of force most likely elicited a physical response from Carroll because the it went on, "Coleman then arrested Mr. Carroll and took him to the station house.  It was 4 o'clock in the morning before friends heard of the arrest and bailed Mr. Carroll out."

In court the next morning several witnesses attested to Carroll's story and he was discharged.  He voiced his dissatisfaction with Officer Coleman to reporters.  "I'm not a tough, and I don't propose to be used like one.  I don't like to interfere with any man's making a living, but that's not the kind of work the city expects from policemen."

The incident seems to have stuck with Carroll.   After leaving the saloon at Horatio and West Streets at about 10:00 on June 12, 1894 truck driver John Donovan ran into a few friends.  They were talking when Policeman Michael Murray approached and told them to move along.  Donovan apparently did not move fast enough.

When he appeared in court the following day on disorderly conduct charges, his head "was swathed in bandages," according to the New-York Tribune, and when the judge asked what happened, he said "The cop did it."

According to Donovan, he started to walk away when he "received a blow across the side of the head that knocked me to the sidewalk, and heard the policeman swear at me.  While I was lying on the sidewalk the policeman clubbed me about the head until I was almost senseless, and did not stop until a citizen interfered and saved me from being killed."  The newspaper noted that "John Carroll, of No. 29 Bethune st., furnished bail for Donovan."

Later that year Carroll sold No. 29 to his long-term tenant, Lawrence Lynch.   He and his wife, Martha, had two grown sons, Bernard and John, Jr., who both lived in the house.  The sons worked together as blacksmiths at No. 500 West Street.

It is unclear how long the Lynch family remained at No. 29; but by 1911 it was the home of the John Duffell family.  On August 11 that year 11-year old Elizabeth J. Duffell died in the house.  Her funeral was held here the following afternoon.

Elizabeth had a sister, Antoinette, who was a year older.  She lived on in the house until her death at the age of 22 on February 13, 1920.  Like her sister's had been, her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  

It appears that despite her young age, Antoinette had inherited the property and was the sole owner.  It was purchased that year by real estate operator and developer Jane Weston who lived in it for several years.

By 1947 the widowed Anne Carroll owned No. 29.  Listed in directories as "librarian," she was a long-term member of the Special Libraries Association.  Her name appeared on a far different list during a meeting of the Senate's hearing on the "Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States" on February 21, 1956.

Other than the added fire escape, essentially nothing has changed to No. 29 since this photo was taken in the 1940's.  via NYC Department of  Records & Information Services
Unlike most of the homes along the Bethune Street block, No. 29 managed to escape conversion to apartments throughout the 20th century.  Nevertheless, a fire escape installed around 1956 strongly suggests that it was being operated as a rooming house.

By the mid-1970's the Doyle family were living here.  Son Michael's name appeared in newspapers for all the wrong reasons.  In the summer of 1976 he was involved with a gang of youths who attempted to clear Washington Square park of Blacks and Hispanics.  It came to a violent, senseless and tragic climax on September 8.  According to The New York Times, the 16-year old "together with more than 50 persons, stormed into Washington Park, swinging bats and yelling, 'All niggers out of the park.'"  Fourteen people people were hospitalized injured and one, Marcus Mota, died of his injuries four days later without regaining consciousness.  Another youth was blinded in one eye.

Michael Doyle was one of eleven boys ranging from 16- to 20-years old who were tracked down and arrested.  He was charged with "assault, rioting and manslaughter."  But, no doubt astonishing newspaper readers, all of the defendants were released on September 17, 1977 after justice Robert M. Raft found that the District Attorney mishandled the case.

Doyle was not off the hook, though.  The group was retried the following spring.  He escaped the charge of manslaughter and was convicted of rioting and assault.  Perhaps because of his age he received a prison sentence of "a maximum of four years."

A renovation completed in 2017 resulted in two duplexes within the house--in the basement and parlor level, and the third and fourth floors.   Remarkably intact after nearly 185 years, it was described by in the Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation report in 1969 as "one of the best preserved examples of Greek Revival residential architecture in Greenwich Village."

photograph by the author

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