Monday, June 29, 2020

A History of Actors, Heroin, and Artists - The Lost House at 52 East 9th Street

At the turn of the last century the house, flanked by commercial structures, was little changed.  from the New York University Archives, Sailors' Snug Harbor Image Collection 

In 1873 the block of East 9th Street between University Place and Broadway was still quiet and residential.  In May that year a handsome four-story and basement house was completed at No. 52 on land owned by Sailors' Snug Harbor.   The architect lavished its Italianate style facade with special touches--ornate cast iron eyebrows over the arched openings, stone balconettes at the third floor, and a frieze of pineapples, flowers and rosettes below the bracketed cornice.  Most likely a cast iron balcony fronted the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows.

It appears that by the late 1870's No. 52 was being operated as a rooming house.  Mary J. Price lived here in 1879 while she taught in the Boys' Department of Grammar School No. 25.  But within a few years most of the boarders were involved in the theatrical profession.

Among them were William C. Miller, stage manager for the Fritz Emmet Company, his actress wife, whose stage name was Jennie Christie, and their child star daughter, known as Little Peggy Miller.  Peggy was 8-years old in 1883 and extremely popular with audiences.

On March 5 she was playing the role of Kleine Lena on stage at the Novelty Theater in Williamsburg.  She and comedian Fritz Emmet were dancing together when, according to the Buffalo, New York Evening News, "Fritz suddenly felt the little figure tremble and sink.  He lifted her tenderly, carried her to the wings and gave her to her father, but she never rallied."  The article noted that Emmet "says she was the best child actress he had ever seen."

Peggy's funeral was held in the East 9th Street house.  The New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier reported "The remains were enclosed in a white casket which was literally covered with flowers."

The lifestyle forced upon child actors was a constant concern for the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which cited their often grueling schedules.  The New York Mirror headed off protests on March 17 by saying "She loved her profession and she died in the harness--it did not kill her."

Peggy's mother was inconsolable.  More than a year later her condition had not improved, and in fact had worsened.   The New York Times said "So great was her grief that she retired for a time from the stage, but subsequently she joined Harrigan and Hart's company...When the season ended her mind was still unsettled by brooding over the death of her child, and she failed to recover her wonted spirits."

On October 2, 1884, William Miller went to Police Headquarters and reported his wife had been missing since the previous evening.  The New York Times reported "Mr. Miller said that his wife was insane, and he feared that she was wandering about the city."  Miller had gotten medical treatment for his wife, but nothing helped.  Within the past two weeks he "thought seriously of placing her under restraint, but he hesitated to separate himself from his wife."

She was found on Thursday night at the Sinclair House hotel registered as Jennie Christie.  That evening she had become "very much excited" and a doctor was called.  "Finding that she was insane, he remained in attendance upon the lady," said The Times.  The Syracuse Standard said that subsequently, "She was taken home and placed under restraint."  On October 4 The New York Times reported that she had been taken to Bellevue Hospital, saying "it is feared now that she is hopelessly insane."

Close inspection reveals cast pineapples and flowers in the cornice frieze.  detail from the New York University Archives, Sailors' Snug Harbor Image Collection 
Harry Jackson, Jr. boarded in the house at the time.  He was the manager of the Queen's Evidence acting company.  He found himself behind bars in June 1885 after actress Florence Western accused him of slipping a pair of diamond earrings and a diamond ring from her satchel while at dinner on the Bowery.  She placed a value of $15,800 in today's money on the jewelry.  The New York Times said Florence "was positive Jackson had stolen her diamonds, and Jackson was equally positive in denouncing the charge."

The house would received its most celebrated resident in March 1886 when the internationally renowned stage star Lillian Russell moved in.  Her mother, Cynthia Leonard, and her sister, actress and producer Susie Russell, already were sharing rooms here.

Lillian had been romantically involved with composer Edward Solomon since 1882 and she starred in several London productions he wrote specifically for her.  In 1885 they married.  Things began to sour for the couple shortly after the birth of their child, Lillian.  Their last show together, The Maid and the Moonshiner, was a financial flop, creditors sued Solomon who fled the country, and Lillian discovered that he was already married. 

Lillian Russell as she appeared in 1889.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

On April 2, 1886 The Brooklyn Union reported that about two weeks earlier Lillian and the baby had moved in with her mother.  "The exact causes of conjugal infelicity between Mr. and Mrs. Solomon have not been ascertained...The actress's counsel say it is only a 'little tiff;' that she prefers to live at her mother's house and he don't choose to live there with her."

On September 23 Edward Solomon was arrested in London on charges of bigamy preferred by his first wife, actress Lily Grey.  A reporter rushed to ask Cynthia Leonard her thoughts and she "spoke with considerable vim of Solomon's arrest, as she sat rocking herself, surrounded by fashionable furnishings and bric-a-brac in her home at 52 East Ninth street," said The Sun the following day.

"I'm glad that man's arrested.  It serves him right.  He won't find any other woman to support him again in a hurry.  When Lillian married him she knew that he had lived with both Lily Grey and Edith Bland, but he swore to Lillian that he had never married either of them, and she believe him."

Two years later news came from London that Edward Solomon had married again.  A reporter from The World again headed off to interview Cynthia Leonard on October 1, 1888 but just missed her.  "She had transferred her household goods from 52 East Ninth street to 155 West Twenty-third street."  He followed the trail.  There Lillian's other sister, Hattie, and her mother were more than happy to talk about the new wrinkle.  Asked if Lillian might cause trouble, Hattie responded, "Not a bit.  She is glad to be rid of him.  But, just the same, if he shows up in America he can be imprisoned for ten years."

In January 1887 Ernst Drescher purchased No. 52 from sisters Catharine and Anna L. Blunt for $8,750, or just under a quarter of a million in today's dollars.  He hired the 29-year old architect C. B. J. Snyder in September 1890 to make interior renovations.  It was among Snyder's last projects before being appointed Superintendent of School Buildings, or the official school building architect, on July 1, 1891.

Included in the alterations was the installation of Drescher's tailor shop in the basement.  The family lived in the building with the other renters.  Drescher's son, Frederick, was also a trained tailor but he sought a different career path by applying to the New York City Police Department in 1891.  Sadly for Frederick, he was rejected.

His decision was most likely prompted by the financial troubles of the tailor shop.  On May 23, 1891 The Sun reported that "Deputy Sheriff Mulvaney has taken charge of the store of Ernest Drescher, tailor, at 52 East Ninth street."  

At about the same time bachelor broker John F. Capron was living here.  In 1890 his brother, the Rev. George C. Capron of Taunton, Massachusetts, and his wife Lillian, were summering on Buzzard's Bay and John went there to visit.  Five years later he was shocked to find his name scandalized in newspapers across the country.

Rev. Capron filed for divorce from Lillian in December 1885. In his petition, according to The Sun, he said "he was a dutiful and loving husband.  At times, he says,  his wife was good and at times bad."  The New York Herald reported that his filing was "on the ground of bad temper."  He said, for example, "At the dinner table he accidentally tipped over a tumbler of water, and she took up her plate and broke it over his head before he could stop her."  John F. Capron supported his brother's action and provided an affidavit regarding Lillian's "bad temper and cruelty."

But in court the minister changed his story.  Shockingly, he said that during the 1890 visit to Buzzard's Bay his wife and brother "misbehaved."  He claimed they "committed adultery one evening while bathing in the sea," and "that on the same evening his brother and his wife left the cottage and walked on the seashore. He followed them at a distance and again witnessed his wife's unfaithfulness."

John F. Capron was understandably indignant.  He employed a lawyer and on December 14, 1895 he told The Sun, "If my name is in any way connected with the charges of adultery made by my brother against his wife, I propose to have it expunged even if I have to break the decree of divorce."  He said "I cannot afford to have any such accusations against my character stand as a matter of record either on my own account or on account of my mother and sisters."

In 1899 the former tailor shop was home to Julius Altman's fur store.  But around the turn of the century Ernst Drescher sold the leasehold on the property to brewer George Ehret.  It was common for breweries to operate their own saloons, thereby guaranteeing a monopoly of the products sold, and the basement was converted to a saloon.

In 1904 the upper floors filled with commercial tenants.  That year Dublin & Morris opened its "fur and skin shop" and Moskowitz and Katzman, another fur business, moved in.

Peter Rienzie was the engineer of the building nearby at No. 33 East 9th Street.  An engineer was in charge of the mechanical facilities, like the boiler, elevator, and such.  Although January 27, 1907 was a Sunday, he came to work that morning to replenish the coal and to clean "my elevator machine."  He briefly left the basement unattended because, as he related in court later, "about eight o'clock, I felt kind of thirsty and I drops into a saloon at 52 East Ninth Street and I gets a glass of beer there."  (The saloon owner apparently paid little notice to the sabbath, as well.)  The break got him in hot water.  When he returned he found a man in the basement with a bundle.  He knew Joseph Moran slightly from the street.  Moran asked him to watch the bundle of dirty clothes until the next day and Rienzie trustingly agreed.  Later police later arrested Rienzie for having stolen goods in his possession.

By the end of the Great Depression the once fashionable block had severely changed.   The tailor store turned saloon in the basement was now a Chinese laundry.  In the spring of 1937 narcotics agents received a tip that "pink heroin pills were being manufactured" there, according to the U. S. Treasury Department's report on "Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs" that year.  On March 19 agents searched the laundry.  They "arrested Chin Toy, Chin Len, and Park Chin, and seized 624 pink heroin package of opium dross weighting 43-1/2 grains net, and three jars containing traces of smoking opium."  The report added "Implements for manufacturing heroin were also seized."

The 1940's saw artists taking over the upper floors.  In 1946 John Ferren and his wife, Rae Ferren, moved in.  Directly below them lived Conrad Marca-Relli and artist Franz Klein was in rooms above.

Four years later the venerable brownstone residence was demolished to make way for The Hamilton Apartments.

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