Saturday, May 30, 2020

E. Sniffen's 1883 219-221 Grand Street

Until 1767 the wide drive that ran east-west through the country estate of James de Lancey Jr. was called the Road to Crown Point.  That year de Lancey renamed it Grand Street.  Following the Revolutionary War and his banishment as a Loyalist, de Lancey’s property was confiscated and the building lots were auctioned.  By the 1810's and ‘20's, Grand Street saw the rise of brick-faced homes, including No. 221, home to John Lovett in 1823.

The house, described as a "three story brick front house" was the home and office of dentist Thomas Paine in the 1840's.  By 1874 the ground floor had been converted for business and housed a variety of shops over the next decade, including Henry Birn's crockery and glass store, J. McGivern's tea shop, and finally J. F. Manken's saloon.  Manken had just paid his $75 fee for his excise (or liquor) license in July 1883 when he received bad news.

Simultaneously Daniel D. Brickenhoff had purchased the property.  He was the principal in the construction firm D. Brickhoff & Co.  On July 27, 1883 his architect, E. Sniffen, filed plans for a "five-story brick store" on the site of the old house at a cost $22,000, or just under $580,000 today.

Although Sniffen produced several tenement buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn, little is known about him.  For Brickenhoff he produced an especially handsome blend of Italianate and neo-Grec styles.  The cast iron storefront had a chamfered entrance behind a free-standing cast iron column.   
The upper floors were faced in red brick and trimmed in sandstone.  Quoins ran up the sides while the openings sat on scalloped sills and wore robust lintels with incised designs.   The projecting chimney backs at the fourth and fifth floors sat upon chunky carved supports.  They took the form of heavy pilasters at the fourth floor and paired, engaged Corinthian columns at the fifth.  The handsome metal cornice was distinguished by a triangular pediment.

The building was only 23 feet deep along Elizabeth Street.  That all changed a year later when Brickenhoff brought E. Sniffen back to essentially double its size.  On February 16, 1884 The American Architect & Building News reported that he had filed plans for an extension along Elizabeth Street to cost $25,000--more than the original building.  The resulting addition, four bays side, was architecturally seamless.

The store was home to one of several W. L. Douglas shoe stores in the city.  William Lewis Douglas had founded the firm in 1876 and reinvented how the shoe industry worked.  Rather than wholesale the shoes he manufactured, he opened his own retail shops.  Taking a page from P. T. Barnum's book, he stamped his image on the leather soles, making his shoes easily recognized.  By the turn of the century W. L. Douglas was the largest shoe maker in the world.

The $3 cost of this shoe would equal $85 today.  The Sun, December 5, 1886 (copyright expired)
The building's residents were working class--at least those who worked.  One who found other means of making a living was 34-year old August Palmer, who was living here in September 1887 when he was once again arrested.

He and three cohorts, August Bergman, alias 'Dutch Gus;' Henry Frey, alias 'Little Henry;' and Frank Clark set their plan to rob the store of Michael Borchardt on Canal Street into motion on the evening of September 9.  They hid in a loft directly above the store and after hours packed up silverware and silk goods valued at $180,000 in today's money.  The following morning they returned, dressed as janitors.  An express wagon had been hired to transport the neatly-packaged heist to the house of merchant Joseph Snow on East 76th Street.  (Police later said Snow "has been closely watched for a number of years, but has so far managed to keep out of prison.")

Their scheme fell apart because of a vigilant watchman who was suspicious of the Saturday morning activity and took down the license number of the wagon.   After following the trail to the destination supplied by the driver, the police learned from a woman living nearby that she had seen four men carrying bolts of silk into the house.

On September 15 The Evening Post entitled a front page article "A Good Haul" and reported on the arrest of the thieves along with Joseph Snow.  "The four burglars have spent most of their lives in prison," it said.  August Palmer, who had already spent three terms in State Prison, would not be returning to his Grand Street apartment.

The author of a situation-wanted ad in February 1888 was typical of the residents in the building.  "Bartender's Position Wanted by a single young man; five years' best recommendations from last employer.  Address BARTENDER 221 Grand st."  

As the century drew to a close tenants included Joseph McManus, who volunteered with the 108th Regiment in 1898 following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.  Vincent Cristalli lived here at the same time.  As an attendance officer with the New York Public Schools, his lurking presence on the streets was a constant threat to hooky-playing schoolboys.

In the first years of the 20th century John McBride worked as a "laborer" for the Department of Docks.  He earned 31.25¢ per hour in 1905, or about $9.50 an hour today.  At the time Vincenzo Benincasa was trying hard to elevate himself from his humble immigrant beginnings.  That year he was enrolled as a junior at Columbia University's College of Pharmacy.

The names of McManus, McBride, Cristalli and Benincasa reflected the mixed Irish and Italian demographics of the neighborhood at the time.  There were those among those immigrant communities who took advantage of their own countrymen's naivete, however.  Among them was Dr. Salvatore Magnoni who lived and ran his private practice at No. 219-221 Grand Street.

On May 25, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported on an investigation into "irregularities" within the medical community which it said "may develop into trouble of considerable magnitude."  The article pointed out the case of "an Italian" who had paid exorbitant fees to Dr. Magnoni and to Bellevue Hospital.

"Dr. Salvatore Magnoni, of No. 219 Grand street, said the man had been under his treatment, and for a month's services he had charged him $50."  That initial fee would be equal to $1,400 today.  The New-York Tribune reported "As the case was an aggravated one, he said he told him to go to Bellvue."  The patient was charged another $50 for admission, and "agreed to pay $50 more for treatment."  Dr. Magnoni was called in on the case, and he again charged $50.  The immigrant patient's medical bill had now climbed to the equivalent of $5,610 today.

Dr. Magnoni was unapologetic.  "So far as I am concerned the proposition was one between patient and private physician, and I deem every act of mine proper."

The doctor's unscrupulous treatment of his neighbors finally went too far.  In 1913 he began receiving anonymous threatening letters.  And then on November 2 Louis Guadaza ran up to Patrolman Moffett and told him there was a suspicious looking cigar box in the hallway of No. 221 Grand Street.  "The patrolman found the infernal machine lying just outside the door to Dr. S. Magnoni's flat," reported the New-York Tribune.

A protruding fuse had burned to within half an inch of the box.  "Moffett grasped the sputtering thing and snuffed out the sparks.  When he opened the box he found four sticks of dynamite."  It was taken to the Bureau of Combustibles where it was deemed "of a particularly dangerous nature."

The chamfered entrance to the store was still evident in this tax photograph taken around 1941.  photo via NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
In 1917 the store was home to Alexander & Littlefield Company where housewives could buy the "Sovereign" vacuum cleaner.  At a time when few tenement buildings had electricity, the clever device did not need it.  "The 'Sovereign' Vacuum Cleaner is of the piston plunger type," explained the New-York Tribune on July 22.  "The pumping motion produces a suction, which draws the embedded dirt up through the nozzle and deposits it in a chamber inside the cylinder."  The labor-intensive device weighed six pounds and could be purchased for the equivalent of $70 in today's dollars.

The Carlino family lived in No. 221 in 1922 when 17-year old John Carlino got himself into serious trouble.  He and three friends, James Cusano, Anthony Masceto, and Jasper Scalofano decided to break into the olive oil and cheese store of Sabella Brothers around the corner on Elizabeth Street.  Cusano, who was 18-years old, led the gang and his plan was to saw through the iron bars of the cellar window to gain access.

Patrolman Michael Healy noticed the four youths loitering around the store and approached.  James Cusano assumed that cops could be bought and asked him "Will you stand for a little job?"  

"What kind?" asked Healy.

Cusano explained the plan.  "Sure, at your own risk," said the officer and he walked to the corner to stand lookout.  When out of eyesight he went to the police signal box and asked for reinforcements.  As the boys were herded into a police vehicle, one of the detectives could not hold back his astonishment at Cusano's impertinence: "Were you ever in a lunatic asylum or hit over the head?"

As the decades passed, the Grand Street neighborhood declined.  Already suffering neglect, No. 221 was devastated by a fire in March 1963.  The tenants of the twelve apartments went to the homes of friends and neighbors.  The New York Times reported "Five months later they were still homeless.  The building had no water, gas or electricity."

The tenants sued the landlord to force him to make repairs, but with no success.  It was seized by the city, which spent $39,350 on repairs.  But while the tenants now could return to their three- and four-room apartments, they faced a rent increase of up to 62 percent.  The lowest rent, which had been $25.30 a month, rose to $40.82 (or, in today's terms, from $211 to $314).

In 1970 the city auctioned the property with a minimum bid of $18,000.  It received a renovation in 2013 which resulted in offices on the second floor, three apartments each on upper floors.  E. Sniffen's handsome 1883 building once again attracts attention for the right reasons.

photographs by the author

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