Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Cornelius Oakley House - 59 Morton Street

photo via

In 1828 Greenwich Village was growing.  New York City residents fleeing the yellow fever epidemic established homes and stores in the bucolic hamlet to the north.  That year Cornelius Warner Oakley erected one of the first homes on winding Morton Street on land owned by Trinity Church.

His dignified Federal style residence was faced in Flemish bond red brick.  Three stories tall above a tall basement, its marble window lintels were finely wrought with end blocks and stepped central sections.  Delicate ironwork including filigree-like newels adorned the stone stoop, and two handsome dormers with arched windows and broken pediments perched above the cornice.

But it was the superb entrance which reflected Oakley's wealth and position.  A paneled marble arch floated above the ample leaded fanlight.  The single paneled door was flanked by fluted Ionic columns which sat before wooden panels carved to imitate stone blocks (half versions snuggled into the corner on the other side of the elegant leaded sidelights).  The configuration was almost identically copied on the interior of the entrance foyer.

With no houses yet built on the opposite side of Morton Street there was an uninterrupted view south to the St. John's Burying Ground on Leroy Street.  The property included the lot directly behind on Barrow Street where the brick carriage house sat.  

Cornelius Warner Oakley was a wealthy tobacco merchant with offices at No. 108 Front Street.  Among the items he carried, according to the Genesee Farmer, was "pure Turkey tobacco of the kind used in Turkey for smoking."

Born in 1793, Oakley had married Jane Wiley on March 27, 1816.  The couple had five children, Robert H., Carrie L, Nettie, Joseph and Eva.

In 1836 Oakley put the house on the market.  His advertisement in The Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer described:

The elegant three-story brick dwelling House, No. 59 Morton street, directly facing the Episcopal Cemetery ground, with summer cellar, and a well of excellent water in the yard, possessing all the modern improvements; together with a brick Coach House on the rear...leased at very low ground red from Corporation of Trinity Church.  It will be sold with or without the Coach House and lot on Barrow street.

The new owner sought to lease the house in the spring of 1840.  His ad veiled the fact that its view looked upon a cemetery.  "To Let--to a good tenant, the large three story house, 59 Morton street; there is a large public square in front, and it is in all respects a desirable residence for a genteel family."

A relatively quick succession of residents passed through the house within the next few decades.  It was home to Alexander Hutton in the Civil War years.  He died in the house on June 5, 1863 at the age of 42 and his funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Thomas and Margaret Shepherd next moved into the house.  Thomas died on May 24, 1865, and Margaret lived on until January 9, 1876.  Her funeral was held in the house on January 13.  Two years later No. 59 was offered for lease for the winter.  An advertisement in The New York Herald read "In perfect order, will be let cheap to responsible party until May 1."

In 1888 the house became home to the Girls' Endeavor Society, part of the Association of Working Girls’ Societies.  This and similar groups were formed to give support to girls and women who worked for a living.   But the Morton Street house was slightly different.  It was a forerunner of the working women's hotels to come.  In his 1889 Working Women in Large Cities State Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright wrote:

At No. 59 Morton street is a home peculiarly interesting as a business experiment, because it aims to be self-supporting, and is excellent in every particular...The Morton street home has just competed its first year of existence, and has almost maintained itself without outside assistant.  The two parlors are rented to the girls' society; the remaining rooms are filled with busy young women--milliners, governesses, students, companions, type-writers, etc.  Prospective vacancies are bespoken long in advance, and but for the dull summer season, when girls out of work go to friends out of the city, the house would fully pay all its expenses.

By the turn of the century the Girls' Endeavor Society had changed its name to The Endeavor Club.  In 1901 the residents' cache of reading material was refreshed when the New York Public Library loaned the club 47 volumes from its circulation department.

In July 1902 the City of New York authorized the Board of Education to rent the parlor floor from the Endeavor Club "for kindergarten an annual rate of five hundred dollars, to include light, heat and janitor's services."  The managers had obviously weighed the inconvenience of losing their parlors to a group of five-year-old children against the windfall of $15,300 per year in today's money.   The City renewed the lease at least through 1904.

The kindergarten was followed by a branch office of the Charity Organization Society in the parlor level.  

Queen Anne had granted the land on which the house stood to Trinity Church in 1714.  In 1920 Trinity began selling off large amounts of property in Greenwich Village, including the plot at No. 59 Morton Street.  The Alentaur Realty Company purchased the house and eleven others in the neighborhood.

The Sun, June 20, 1920 (copyright expired)
In reporting on the sale The Sun got the original owner wrong, saying it had been built by wealthy merchant Alexander T. Stewart, but accurately described the vintage house.  "At present...its exterior and interior lines have undergone little if any change since the day when it was the luxurious home of the city's first dry goods king.  The entire house is splendidly preserved and all the original features--such for instance as the black marble fireplaces, the solid mahogany doors and stair rails with their Colonial spindles and exquisite hand carved newel posts and balustrades--have been kept intact."

Considering the period, the journalist was unusually aware of the home's architectural qualities.  "But the real beauty of the entrance lies in the vestibule, which has not suffered from the ravages of time.  It shows a delightful Colonial inner door with exquisite fan and sidelights with leaded panes."  The article went on, "The work of alteration will begin as soon as the leases of the present tenants expire and the apartments will probably be ready for occupancy next fall."

Living here in 1928 were journalists Charles Bruce Gould (who went professionally by his middle name) and his wife, Beatrice Blackmar Gould.  The couple had been married in 1923.  Both wrote for the New York Evening Post and did freelance work for periodicals like the American Mercury and the New Yorker.  Bruce Gould's aspiration, though, was play writing.  While on two-month vacation in 1927 the couple collaborated on Man's Estate.  (Beatrice took a break to have a baby daughter at the time.)

Bruce Gould was 29 years old in 1928, and Beatrice Blackmar Gould was 28.  New York Evening Post, January 17, 1928  

On January 17, 1928 the New York Evening Post entitled an article "Jed Harris Takes Reporters' Play" and reported "a new play by a newspaper man and his wife will be born on Broadway."

The Goulds would write two other plays, The Terrible Turk and Reunion, but journalism remained their main professions.  In 1935 they were appointed co-editors of the Ladies' Home Journal.

The remarkable entrance caught the eye of esteemed photographer Berenice Abbott in 1949.

By then poet and editor Ridgely Torrence and his wife, the former Olivia Howard Dunbar, had an apartment in the house.  Torrence's works most often shed light on the plight of Black Americans.  Olivia was a magazine writer, novelist and reporter for the New York World.  

In the meantime, the remarkable survival of the fine details of the Oakley house continued to command attention.  In 1939 the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration's New York City Guide deemed No. 59 "the most outstanding example of the late Federal style in New York City."

The exquisite window framing and the mantel survive from 1828.  photo via Leslie J. Garfield
In 2013 a re-conversion to a single family home was begun.  The 25-foot wide residence was later put on the market for $11.25 million.

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