Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Bennett's Oyster House - 494 Hudson Street

Peter Sharpe was a mover and shaker in New York City.  A partner in the horsewhip making firm of Sharpe & Sutphen, he was founder of the Mechanics Society.  Additionally he served as State Assemblyman and in the House of Representatives, and in 1826 was a candidate for Mayor.  The following year he completed a row of six brick-faced homes and shops on Hudson Street between Grove and Christopher Streets.  

Like its nearly identical neighbors, No. 494 was 21-feet wide and three-and-a-half stories tall.  It was designed with a storefront on the ground level.  Three matching arched openings accommodated the shop entrance, the store window, and the elegant residential doorway with its semi-engaged Ionic columns, sidelights and fanlight.  A single dormer punched through the peaked roof.

By the early 1840's it was the home to the family of Charles Pavey.  Pavey was an inventor and manufacturer.  The C. Pavey factory was located at No. 477 Pearl Street, where it made "C. Pavey's justly celebrated waterproof composition, for Harness and Carriage Heads, Self Shining Harness Liquid, Polishing Paste, &c. &c.," according to an advertisement in 1843.

Pavey apparently did not exaggerate concerning the quality of his products.  In 1848 he was awarded a silver medal "for water-proof leather preservative" at the exhibition of the American Institute; and in 1851 he his "composition for preserving and cleaning harness" won another award.

It was quite possibly Pavey's products that 
brought him into contact with Edwin Beck.  In 1847 Beck moved his "leather and finding" shop into the storefront.  

Around 1853 Pavey sold No. 494 to Beck who now moved his family into the house.  The family seems to have taken in two boarders, one of whom was most likely an employee.  John Bastow was here in 1853 and '54, listing his profession as "leather."  Also residing with the family was Isaac Emmens, a clerk.

The Becks remained until 1856.  On March 12 that year an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "A rare chance--To let, the large store and back room, 494 Hudson street; was occupied as a leather and finding store the last nine years, suitable also for any other business.  If desired the dwelling part will be let with it."

George Battleson moved his family in and installed his upholstery store in the ground level space.  Sharing the residential portion was William E. Blauvelt, a silversmith whose business was at No. 6 Liberty Street.  Battleson did not remain for long.  On March 26, 1860 the store was advertised for rent.

It became home to Christian Vogel's furniture store.  Vogel lived in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The upper floors were operated as a boarding house.  Among the tenants in 1861 were Phele Acker, a nurse; Frederick S. Pelton, "foreman," and William Dunham who enlisted in the Tammany Regiment to fight in the South.  

The Confederates in charge of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia allowed Captain Timothy O'Meara of the Tammany Regiment to send a letter to New York with a list of the Union prisoners held there.  Most likely to ensure his letter made it through, he included the line "The people down here are not so cruel as people in the North would make them."  As a matter of fact, however, Libby Prison earned a reputation for its inhumane conditions.  Among the 91 names was that of William Dunham.

The 1827 Federal style doorway survives.

The boarding house's landlady was most likely "Mrs. Linen."  She was running it in June 1864 when one of her boarders dropped a gold breastpin on the ferry from Hoboken.  Within the year Caroline H. Tower, widow of Lucien N. Tower, had taken over as landlady.  Around this time the store was converted for a restaurant.

The relatively rapid succession of owners and businesses would come to an end in May 1868.  An advertisement offered "For Sale--the valuable house and lot, together with the good will and fixtures of the restaurant, 494 Hudson street."   It was purchased by the Bennett family.  John Bennett ran the Bennett Oyster House on Eighth Avenue at the corner of Horatio Street, and his brother Abram F. Bennett owned a restaurant on Barclay Street.

John Bennett moved the oyster house into the restaurant space and the extended Bennett family lived upstairs.  George W. Bennett also owned a portion of the property, although it is unclear whether he lived on site.

Bennett's Oyster House was successful and popular.  John placed ads several times, like the example on October 5, 1872 that read "Wanted--At Bennett's Oyster House, 494 Hudson st., a man to open oysters and make himself generally useful."

In the summer of 1885 John Bennett jumped through a few bureaucratic hoops to get his application to "erect a storm-door" in front of his restaurant approved.  The problem for the Board of Alderman was that a storm door was in fact a semi-permanent version of the temporary structures we see today in front of restaurants and bars that prevent cold air from sweeping in.  The extension would necessarily "intrude" on the public sidewalk.  On August 31 Mayor William Russell Grace granted permission as long as the work was done "at his own expense, under the direction of the Commissioner of Public Works."

Although the Bennetts continued living on the upper floors, in 1896 Bennett's Oyster House closed its doors after having been here for nearly 30 years.   The space was leased to H. K. Sprott for his restaurant.   

It may have been that John Bennett was already showing signs of dementia.  It was a disease that was not understood at the time, called "confusion" at best and "insanity" at worst.

On March 26, 1900 The New York Press entitled an article "All Night In The Streets / Old Man Wandered for 24 Hours After Leaving Home."  The article began "Nearly dead from exhaustion, John Bennett, 77 years old, of No. 494 Hudson street, was found yesterday by a policeman of the West Sixty-eighth street station at Sixty-fifth street and Amsterdam Avenue."  The family had been looking for him since he had left the house on Saturday afternoon.  Bennett's son brought him home from Roosevelt Hospital.

Five months later Bennett wandered away again.  On August 27 a New Jersey detective spotted him on the railroad tracks just north of Hoboken.  Fearing he would be hit by a train and then realizing he was confused, the officer took him into custody.  This time John had been missing for a week.  

At the station house John declared he was 102-years old and in the oyster business.  Officers asked him why he was in Hoboken.  "Looking for oysters, I s'pose," he replied.

On Monday August 27 Detective Fenson brought Bennett home.  The New-York Tribune reported "the detective reported that they were greeted at the house by Bennett's sister, who gave her age as ninety-seven years.  Bennett's son, sixty-seven years old, was also there, and said his father and a brother had wandered away from home on Monday of last week."  The brother was presumably Abram, but where he was now is unclear.

The Bennetts sold No. 494 in 1903 to Leon Wilner who resold it and five other nearby properties (including No. 496 next door) in November 1908.  The second floor was converted to a social hall where dinners and political meetings were held.

On October 23, 1909, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported on the busy schedule of Mayoral candidate Otto T. Bannard.  "He will speak at a noonday meeting at No. 494 Hudson street," it announced.

Not all press coverage of the club was good.  On November 12, 1912 the New-York Tribune noted that "There have been many complaints against the place by persons who live in the neighborhood."  Police had raided the club early that morning after screams of a girl crying for help were reported. 

In 1912 the building was remarkably intact.  A junk store operated from the ground floor.  The social club on the second floor was either in the rear, or simply had deceptively domestic-looking window shades.  Construction of Public School No. 3 has begun next door.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Initially one policeman responded, but the door was barred.  He sent for reinforcements "and the door to the club was forced."  The newspaper reported "the police had a sharp fight after they got in the place, but many of the young men ad women who had been dancing ran away through a rear door.  Five young men and three girls were arrested."

In 1914 Norah Foley leased the store, but she had no intention of opening a shop.  On April 27 the New York Herald announced that the Women's Political Union had "yesterday opened a suffrage shop and meeting place at No. 464 Hudson street."  An unexpected spokesperson for the group was 8-year old Katherine Tomkins who "will make suffrage speeches daily in front of a tiny doll house which has been set up inside the suffrage shop."  The article said "Prominent suffragists will be on hand daily to conduct the meetings."

In the first years of Prohibition the upstairs space was home to the Whitney Social Club, a venue that kept police on their toes.  On February 21, 1920 police shut down a dance here.  Two of the patrons, longshoreman John Gillen and his 18-year old fiancée Elizabeth Seely, moved on to the Cinderella Tearoom, a speakeasy on Cornelia Street.  John never went home that night.  He was gunned down at the doorway as he left.

On Saturday night, December 9, 1922 19-year old Anna Sullivan went to a dance in the Whitney Social Club.  She met a man called "Dutch" there and ended up in his room at the Terrance Hotel on West 23rd Street.  Two days later The New York Herald reported that she was in serious condition "from a bullet wound inflicted early Sunday."  "Dutch" had taken off and could not be found.  Anna claimed "he was showing her a revolver in the room when it accidentally discharged."

It was around this time that the attic was raised to a full floor and a large studio window was installed.  The Whitney Social Club was soon gone and over the next few years businesses like the Hudson Skylight & Roofing Co. and the Hardon Caster Co., Inc., makers and sellers of furniture casters, operated from the building.  

In the 1940's the Federal style openings, including the fanlights, still survived.  photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In the 1970's the Greenwich Village neighborhood had greatly changed.  Trendy t-shirt shops, restaurants and bars now operated from the storefronts and young renters flocked to the apartments.  But the carefree atmosphere around No. 494 changed when the city moored a ferry boat at the foot of Christopher Street, three blocks away, from which it dispensed methadone to heroin addicts.

Residents complained that the addicts who came to the "meth boat" did not leave.  "The area's become another 42nd Street," said one.  One local who was not unnerved by the change was 28-year old Roberta Block, a copywriter for Macy's who lived in a second floor apartment in No. 494 with her boyfriend, Ronald Marin.

A neighbor explained "She was too happy with life to be worried, and she felt that her three Afghans and her apartment's front view would protest her."  The three Afghans earned Roberta the nickname "the girl with the dogs" in the neighborhood.

Surprisingly, the three arched openings of the ground floor have endured.
Each afternoon Roberta would pick up lunch and come home to the apartment to eat with Ronald.  On August 8 she found the street door wedged open by a brick.  A few moments later she staggered to the street, screamed "Somebody help me!" and collapsed.    Raimundo Lemus, who owned an antique shop half a block away rushed to her aid.  "I ran to her, but I knew she was dead," he said.  "So I ran back to my store and called for an ambulance, then I came back with a blanket and covered her."  Roberta's lunch was spilled across the pavement.  Within a few minutes, Ronald arrived.  The New York Times reported "'It looks like Roberta,' he said, and then realized what had happened.

Hosie Gene Turner, a 39-year old heroin addict with a long history of robbery, burglary and rape charges was found hiding nearby.

Throughout the 1990's the store was home to Fratelli Ravioli where fresh pasta could be purchased.  By 2014 the Italian restaurant shop Sanpanino had moved in, which remains.

In the meantime, the easily-overlooked 1827 building is covered with stucco, hiding its Flemish bond brickwork.  But amazingly the arched openings of the first floor survive, as does the wonderful Federal style doorway.

photographs by the author

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