Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The J. Odell Whitenack House - 231 West 18th Street

Only the stark contrast between new and old brick and the chunky proportions of the entrance and window frames give away that the facade of the parlor floor has been completely rebuilt, along with a new stoop.

On April 5, 1854 the "valuable basement and counter cellar brick house" at No. 153 West 18th Street was sold at auction.  The 25-foot residence sat on the north side of the street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  Designed in the popular Italianate style, the lintels of the second floor openings featured graceful and highly unusual ogival arches.

It is unclear who originally purchased the house; but working for the family seems to have been a challenge.  For the next decade a flurry of help-wanted and situations-wanted advertisements appeared in the newspapers as servants came and went with surprising frequency.

In 1868 the city made an ambitious move to create a logical address numbering system, with street numbers beginning at Fifth Avenue and increasing going east and west.  This house was given the new address of No. 231 West 18th Street.

On March 6, 1872 J. G. Powell died here.  The 71-year-old's funeral was held in the house two days later.   The next owner would not be here long.  William Lawson died in the house at the age of 58 on January 28, 1873.  The second funeral in less than a year was held in the parlor on January 30.

Richard Power was next to live here.  Born in Ireland, he had been educated for the priesthood there, but, according to the New York Herald, "at the last moment refused to take their orders and adopted the profession of journalism."  Power specialized in law and in 1871 was "the leading law reporter of the New York Press Association," according to the New York Herald.  It was most likely Power who updated the house with pressed metal cornices over the brownstone lintels and a modern metal neo-Grec terminal cornice.

Power died in October 1879 and, once again, a funeral was held here.  Newspapers reported that "nearly all" of his journalistic associates crowded into the house.

By the early 1890's No. 231 was being operated as a boarding house.  While some tenants were respectable and hard-working, like Edward Duffy, a building contractor; others were much less so.

Living here in 1893 was 19-year old Alice Harvey, described by The New York Press as "a colored domestic."  Alice worked for the Torrey family at No. 137 West 63rd Street.  The household include the Torreys, their 19-year old son, and Mary Torrey's widowed sister, Caroline Ponce de Leon (a lineal descendant of the founder of St. Augustine).  

The family maintained a summer home at Port Richmond, Staten Island.  When they closed their townhouse on July 31, 1893 they took the domestic staff along, including Alice.  But a few days after arriving at the Staten Island property, Alice apologized to her employers, saying she was needed back in the city.

Mr. Torrey and his son returned unexpectedly to the city on business for a day in early September.  As they were preparing for bed, they heard voices downstairs.   Preferring not to confront the burglars face-to-face, they began talking loudly and slamming doors hoping to scare them off.  When they heard the street door close, they peered out the window to see a man and woman rush down the stoop and hurry away.

Assuming they had thwarted a burglary, they did not notify police until the family returned on September 18.  That was when Mary Torrey realized that "an imported piano cover worth $100, two fancy table covers, a mantel lambrequin and some wearing apparel," were missing.  Detectives interviewed the neighbors and two girls "said they had seen Alice Harvey enter the house with a colored man several times while the family was away."  Alice was taken from No. 231 West 18th Street by police on September 24.

Robert Gibson lived here at the time.  He was employed as a butler in the home of Frank Adams at No. 55 East 55th Street.  On May 19 that year--the day after the 23-year old quit his job--Mrs. Adams realized that a quantity of her jewelry a had also disappeared.  She valued the stolen goods at $2,000, more than $60,000 by today's terms.

Gibson, who had the unusual alias of Evangeline, was spotted in Boston and other cities, as the detectives on the case followed a path of jewelry in various pawn shops.   The diligent investigators tracked him to Staten Island on July 14 where, according to the New York Herald, he "was sailing under the alias of Robert Van Morse."  At the time of his arrest only two diamond rings had been recovered.  

Mary A. Perry apparently owned the house at the time.  Living with her was her adult brother, John.  The parents of the unmarried siblings, Patrick and Sarah Perry, were both deceased.  Following John's death on December 1, 1896, his funeral was held in the house; and two years later, on August 27, 1898, it was the scene of Mary's funeral.

Peter J. Dempsey then purchased the house.  And while his family did rent rooms, the house was no longer a full-scale boarding house.  Among their boarders in the summer of 1903 was 40-year old widow Maria Peppard and her son.  She and Peter Dempsey walked together to the Eighth Avenue streetcar on July 10.   They sat side-by-side chatting as the car progressed northward.  At around Central Park West and 76th Street Maria stood up to change seats.  The motion of the car caused her to loose her balance and, according to The Evening Telegram, "A signal was given to the motorman, but before he could bring the car to a standstill the woman slipped and fell." 

Maria tumbled out of the car and onto the street, where the wheels of the trolley severed her right foot just above the ankle.  "There was a great deal of excitement among the passengers, and soon a large crowd and collected," said the article.  Maria was taken to Roosevelt Hospital and, surprisingly today, the conductor was arrested.

E. A. Dempsey, presumably Peter's son, dabbled in real estate.  In 1905 he hired architect R. E. La Belle to design a $34,000 brick stable, five stories tall, on West 38th Street.  On March 11, 1906 he advertised the new building as having "176 stalls, all ready to let or lease; up to date."

Peter Dempsey sold No. 231 to J. Odell Whitenack in March 1909.  Whitenack was a building contractor who often doubled as his own architect.   His far-reaching work included the highly profitable contract in 1904 to supply the ticket booths and woodwork of the new IRT subway system.

The Whitenacks, who had a two-year old child, returned the house to a single-family home.  The year they moved in he received the interesting commission to re-purpose the old Second Precinct police station house "into an office building with stores on the ground floor," as reported by the New-York Tribune on May 13, 1909.

Whitenack operated his business from the 18th Street house, most likely from the basement level.  It was a somewhat surprising arrangement, given the scope of his operation.  On November 4, 1916, for instance, the Record & Guide reported "One of the most interesting building projects of the year is being completed at 599-601 Broadway."  The 12-story commercial building was designed by J. Odell Whitenack.

The Record and Guide devoted nearly an entire page to describing Whitenack's Broadway building.  Real Estate Record & Guide, November 4, 1916 (copyright expired)
Earlier that year a building workers' strike erupted into violence outside the 18th Street house.   Union picketers demonstrated on Seventh Avenue on July 3, 1916 until a non-union employee, Vincent Aurora, could take it no more.  The New York Press reported he "charged into a group of strike pickets with a chisel and wounded three men, one so seriously that he may die.  Four shots were fired at him before he was captured at Sixth avenue and Eighteenth street."

At the time Whitenack was subleasing work space to other architects.  Harry N. Paradies listed his professional address here from 1912 through 1917 (his enlistment in the U. S. Army ended his lease here), and in 1916 architects Rothols & Williams were here.

The New York Call, April 14, 1923 (copyright expired)
In 1925 Whitenack completed renovations to the house that turned the basement and first floor to manufacturing space.  An apartment on shared the second floor with "factory" space; and the third floor now held one apartment and an office.  It was most likely at this time that the stoop was removed and show windows installed in the basement and parlor level.  On January 8, 1925 Whitenack advertised the basement level for rent saying it had "good light, steam heat.  Can be used for manufacturing."

The Whitenacks continued to live in one of the apartments.  He had been active in the war effort, working as vice-chairman of the Liberty Loan Committee of the Carpentry Trade.  Now in 1925 he traveled to Fort DuPont, Delaware, where he presented veterans with "decorations for soldierly deeds of heroism."

The house was lost in foreclosure during the Depression.  Aurelia Otero leased it from the bank in 1939 and converted it to factory space throughout, with offices on the third floor.  The basement level became home to the Spanish-American Printing Company.

All of the 1870's pressed metal lintels had fallen away except one around 1941.   photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
The configuration remained until 1962 (interestingly with a printing concern in the basement level all this time).  That year two apartments were installed on the top floor.

As the Chelsea neighborhood revived in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, so did No. 231.  In 2011 plans were filed for a facade renovation that included a "new stoop and exterior windows."  Although the building does not sit within the Chelsea Historic District, the architects gave a nod to its historic character by replicating a 19th century stoop and designing the window and doorway surrounds based on antique precedents.  The graceful lintels were copied and installed on the third floor.  

photographs by the author

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