Friday, March 13, 2020

The Abused William and Emily Olliffe House - 41 East 19th Street

Only hints of the former glory of the battered brownstone remain.

Dr. William J. Olliffe came from a long line of physicians, "one of whom," according historian J. Thomas Scharf in his 1886 History of Westchester County, "was long body physician to Louis XVI, and another, Sir Joseph, was physician to the British embassy at Paris and to Emperor Louis Napoleon."   Olliffe married Emily Gertrude Williams, the daughter of Cornelius T. Williams "whose lands on Manhattan Island included what is now Union Square and extended northward along Broadway to the present Madison Square," said Scharf.  

Upon the death of her father Emily inherited part of that land and in 1852 she and William began construction of a home on one its plots.  At 25-feet wide and four stories tall above a high English basement, it reflected their considerable wealth.  Completed the following year the brownstone-faced residence was designed in the currently popular Italianate style, with an impressive entranceway with foliate-carved brackets, molded lintels above the windows and, most likely, cast iron balconies at the parlor level.  A bracketed cornice completed the elegant design.

The Olliffes had two children, William M., who was 9-years old when the family moved into the house, and 1-year old Emily Gertrude.  The family's staff included a nurse for Emily during the first few years of their residency.

On Saturday morning, October 7, 1865, Dr. Olliffe died at the age of 61.  His funeral was held in the 19th Street house the following Monday afternoon.  

Emily leased the residence soon afterward.  It was being operated as a boarding house by August 1869 when an advertisement offered "To Let an entire second floor; other rooms in suits and singly."  That it was a respectable and upscale house was reflected in an ad in July 1872.  "Well furnished rooms to let--To gentlemen and wives; also single rooms to young men."  Only married women with their husbands were welcomed, as proper single females did not live alone.

The boarding house was run by Mary S. Hitchcock.  Among her well-to-do boarders during the 1870's were manufacturing jeweler Levi Miller and Robert W. Rodman, an executive in the Harlem Gaslight Co.

Mary Hitchcock was partially disabled, apparently the result of a stroke.  She had no control of one arm and could not speak, communicating only through gestures.  For that reason her niece, Helen Leary, moved into the house to help operate it.  When Helen died on November 28, 1878, followed quickly afterward by Mary, their estates were thrown into chaos.  Would-be heirs tied them up in the courts for years, charging fraud and forgery.

Mrs. Catherine V. Cahn next leased the house.  As had been the case with Mary Hitchcock, her bachelor boarders were respectable and well-heeled, like the Rev. Harry W. Nancrede, and Colonel Isaac Moses, a broker and veteran of the Civil War.  The first instance of unwanted press did not come until 1890.

James Delafield Trenor was described by The Evening World as "an expert in art matters."  It also said that while the 42-year-old was ordinarily temperate, "in spells he drank to excess."  Such was the case for days in a row during the first week of February 1890.   At 6:00 on the evening of February 9 he came home drunk and promised Mrs. Cahn he would stay in his rooms.  But around 10:00 he sneaked out.

At around 1:30 in the morning Catherine Cahn was awakened by a banging on the front door.  She opened it to find Trenor so covered in blood that she did not recognize him and nearly slammed the door.  But she then recognized his voice and called for help to get him to his bed.  A boarder rushed to Dr. George V. Foster who lived a block away.   Trenor managed to linger until morning when he died of his wounds.  He had repeatedly muttered that he had been "assaulted by ruffians."

Newspapers splashed the gruesome news of murder in their headlines.  Dr. Foster said the cause of death was a fractured skull, the result of a heavy blow with a blunt instrument.  Investigators followed a trail of blood to Broadway and south to 18th Street.

The Evening World, February 10, 1890 (copyright expired)

The investigation lasted only two days when, despite the blood trail evidence and Trenor's deathbed testimony of assault, Police Inspector Byrne closed the case.  The Evening World reported "The Inspector, in his statement, says that Trenor was not murdered.  He has proof which shows that Trenor received his injuries by falling from his boarding-house stoop, 41 East Nineteenth street, while drunk."

Two of the boarders in 1894 were 18-year old Frederick L. Koch, an agent for the Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and Arthur Noekel.  The pair had become friends and when Koch visited a relative, Samuel Nieldweiser, in his store on Third Avenue on April 22, Noekel tagged along.  He would later rue his decision.

Koch knew that Nieldweiser kept a handgun in the store and he asked if he could borrow it.  Nieldweiser apparently was aware of some upheaval within the family and was concerned that Koch's intentions were not good--possibly even suicide--so he refused.  The young man knew where the gun was kept, and casually asked to see a family photograph album.  When Nieldweiser opened the drawer and withdrew the album, Koch quickly grabbed the revolver and shot himself in the temple.

Koch died in the Flower Hospital the following morning.  In his pocket was a note which blamed his death on his step-grandmother who made "false my relatives."  Both Nieldweiser and Noekel were arrested and held in jail as witnesses.

In 1898 Emily Olliffe hired architect W. O. Tait to enlarge the house to the rear with a one-story extension.  The alterations accommodated the installation of a Japanese restaurant in the basement level.  It was part of an arrangement with the new proprietor who established the property as an exclusively Japanese boarding house.

In 1901 Yonejirō Noguchi, known in the west as Yone Noguchi, moved in.  An influential writer of fiction and poetry, he described the place to friend and writer Charles Warren Stoddard in a letter as "a Jap boarding [house], full of prank and noise," according to Edward Marx in his 2013 Leonie Gilmour: When East Weds West.  While living here Noguchi completed his novel Diary of a Japanese Girl.   

Yone Noguchi as he appeared in 1920.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

The "pranks and noise" within the boarding house caused neighbors to complain to police during the winter of 1903.  On February 1 The New York Press reported that detectives had "crawled over a fence in the rear of No. 41 East Nineteenth street last night and arrested five Japanese who were playing cards there."  They were arrested for gambling, the article explaining "The Japanese had two hatfuls of pennies in front of them when the detectives entered the place."  The men could not afford bail "and they spent the hours crying in their cells."

November 3, 1906, the birthday of the Emperor, was a day of celebration among the Japanese community.  Among the events, as reported by The Sun, was a "high collar" dinner held "by the Japan Club of Columbia University at a Japanese restaurant at 41 East Nineteenth street.  Here twenty of the Japanese students sat down to a banquet that was almost as good as the famous Maple Club in Tokio sets out, only the charming little neesans that patter across the matting in the Shiba ingle, all radiant in their flowered kimonos and gorgeous obis, were lacking."

A vintage postcard depicts the interior of Toyo-Kawn restaurant.

The Emperor's birthday did not end as joyfully for two of the upstairs residents.  The following morning The New York Times reported that Tom Hiashi and Ray Kamachi, "two undersized Japanese," had been arrested for intoxication and disorderly conduct."  The newspaper explained "The alleged intoxication was caused by saki, while the alleged disorderly conduct consisted of many banzais and a splendid jiu jitsu exhibition which almost put five policemen from the Oak Street Station out of business."

The officers were unprepared for the resistance exhibited by the martial arts trained men.  In court one said, "I don't know just how it happened, but I got a twist of my arm.  Then I landed on the tracks [of the elevated station]."  The pair was fined $3 each for the escapade (about $85 in today's money).

Toyo T. Kikuchi lived here in 1909 when he and his fiancée went to City Hall on March 20 to obtain their marriage license.  The normally commonplace errand created headlines as far away as upstate New York.  The Evening Telegram announced "Japanese Girl Gets License To Wed At City Hall," and the Glens Falls Daily Times headlined its article "Japanese Woman To Marry."  The Evening Telegram explained the excitement.  "Never until petite Yori Komatsu, twenty-seven years old, an unusually pretty Japanese girl, accompanied her intended husband to the Marriage License Bureau in the City Hall to-day had there been recorded there a license for the marriage of a Japanese woman."

The Toyo-Kwan was still operating as late as 1932, but after mid-century No. 41 became the fraternity house of the Alpha Omega Fraternity chapter of the New York University School of Dentistry.  An alteration in 1959 resulted in a "club room" on the first floor, sleeping rooms on the upper floors and a "card room" on the fourth floor.

The foliate brackets and arch of the inner doorway survive.   Above the keystone is the monogram of the Alpha Omega fraternity.
Another renovation, completed in 1980, resulted in two apartments in the basement and first floor, and one each on the upper levels.  It was possibly at this time that a coating of brownstone-colored stucco was applied.  Sadly, the face lift made no attempt at restoration.

photographs by the author

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