Thursday, June 4, 2020

The 1824 Andronicus Chesebrough House - 33 Howard Street

Based on tax records it appears Andronicus Chesebrough erected his three story home at No. 33 Howard Street around 1824, an early example of Greek Revival.  Three bays wide, its brick facade was trimmed in stone.  A dentiled, molded cornice completed the design.

Chesebrough was a partner in the drygoods firm Chesebrough & Van Allen at No. 158 Pearl Street.  He also invested in real estate.  Decades later The New York Times would say that he "held much land on Manhattan Island in the early days of this century, which became very valuable as the city grew."  He and his wife, Margaret, had two sons, Blasius and Charles.  On June 18, 1835, Andronicus Chesebrough died at the age of 53.  The following afternoon his funeral took place from his Howard Street home.

By the mid-1850's the Howard Street block was no longer quiet and respectable.   The drastic change was evidenced on the night of July 21, 1857 when rookie police officer Eugene Anderson surprised a gang of burglars breaking into a shoe store.  One of the men, Michael Cancemi, fired two shots at Anderson, killing him instantly.

Peter Marrin was in the bunk room of Engine Company No. 40 at the time.  He and another man, J. Racey, helped carry the body to the station house, then went on a search of the murder weapon.  In court on September 25 he testified "J. Racey found the pistol in the basement of 33 Howard street;  he gave it to me, and I handed it to officer Wemyse; the pistol was discharged."

How the gun ended up in her basement is unclear; but it seems to have been the last straw for Margaret Cheseborough.  About two weeks later an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald:

To Let--On Account of Breaking Up Housekeeping, a very neat house, with all the modern conveniences, in excellent order, furnished or unfurnished, at 33 Howard street, first block from Broadway.  Rend moderate.  Particulars on premises.

Margaret moved to No. 139 East 17th Street, but she retained possession of No. 33 Howard Street.  She died on November 10, 1860 at the age of 71 leaving her two sons an estate valued at $4 million--more in the neighborhood of $127 million today.

At the time the parlor floor of her Howard Street house had been converted to a saloon.  The New York City Directory of 1859 listed Charles Heinzel "liquors" in at the address.   He placed a Help Wanted ad in The New York Herald on June 19, 1862 seeking "A Good Barkeeper from experience, and good reference, about 30 or 40 years of age, with good pay, at 33 Howard street."

Heinzel most likely needed a veteran bartender because of the rough customers--both men and women--who haunted the saloon and what appears to have been a brothel upstairs.   On December 30 that year the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Yesterday an inquest was held on the body of Mary Demarest at No. 33 Howard street.  Her death was the result of violence at the hands of Patrick Boyle, an Irishman."

The saloon remained at least through 1863; but by 1866 the house had been converted for business purposes.  Charles Chesebrough moved his office into his childhood home, where he now ran his real estate business.  He had inherited "a large quantity of real estate at Fort Washington, New-York City, and elsewhere," from his mother, according to The Tribune Monthly.  Joining him was Henry Trowbridge & Co., which helped administer the Chesebrough estate and properties.

By the mid-1870's furrier E. C. Boughton operated from an upper floor.  He had opened his business in 1855 and was, according to The Fur Trade of America, "best known in connection with the wholesale handling of raw furs."  Boughton also colored furs.  His ad on November 11, 1878 read:

Fine seal sacques redyed in the best manner, darkest shade and highest lustre, and lengthened out with seal, otter, beaver or Alaska sable; time for redyeing 10 days.

While Charles handled the significant real estate left to him by his mother, Blasius led the life of a bon vivant.  He changed his name to George M. Chesebrough and, according to court papers decades later, he "claimed to have purchased a title of nobility in Austria, and liked to be known as 'Count.'"  His own lawyer described him as "a very eccentric man, bombastic, pompous, and extravagant."

George continually scandalized the family name.  It had begun in 1853 when the 35-year old George met Josephine Cregier.  The 16-year old was attending dancing classes in the Bond Street building where he lived.  Court papers later said "she stayed with him in his rooms that night, and lived with him some time afterwards before any pretense of marriage."

They stayed together until 1858 when she left him.  "At times when drunk he was very violent, and treated her with great abuse," according to court papers when Josephine sued him for support of their daughter, Leonora. "He was dissipated, a frequenter of bawdy houses, and an associate of lewd women."

George Chesebrough died in 1866.  Two decades later Leonora, now married, was still attempting "to show that she is the lawful daughter of 'Mad Count Chesebrough and heiress to the millions left through his mother's will,'" as worded in The New York Times on June 17, 1886.  The newspaper recounted numerous testimonies supporting her claims as well as Chesebrough's drunkenness, eccentricities, and abuse of his wife.  "There is an almost countless number of witnesses yet to be called."  Despite that endless parade of witnesses, Leonora lost her case.

E. C. Boughton closed his business in 1889.  He was replaced in the former house by Eli M. Goodman, "tailors' trimmings."

Charles A. Chesebrough died on December 6, 1900.  In reporting on his death The New York Times reminded readers that "Count" Chesebrough "died many years ago after attracting considerable attention by his lavish manner of life."  Charles's estate did not liquidate the vast properties, but continued on in the Howard Street office, administered by Whiteside Hill who moved into the office space.

The transformer from domestic to commercial use brought a cast iron base to the building.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
At the time of Chesebrough's death residents of the East Coast were fascinated by the West.  Dime novels and touring Wild West shows romanticized the lives of cowboys and Indians.  Stephen A. Frost, a former dry goods merchant, traveled West to trade with Native American tribes.  He opened a retail store where he sold baskets, beadwork, willow ware, and textiles.

S. A. Frost's Son, now operated by his son, Dan, was in the building by 1906.  In 1910, when Dan Frost was chosen for the jury in the Government's case against The World for "having criminally libeled Theodore Roosevelt, President Taft, Douglas Robinson, brother-in-law of Mr. Roosevelt" and others the New-York Tribune described him as a "trader in Indian beads."

One of the foremost dealers in Native American wares, S. A. Frost's Son remained at No. 33 Howard Street until it closed forever in 1949.   The Chesebrough Estate offices were still here as late as 1928 and the family retained ownership of the building until 1953.

A renaissance of the neighborhood in the latter part of the 20th century caught up with No. 33 by 1973 when Primitive Theater was presenting Off-Off Broadway plays.  The storefront, once a gritty saloon, was home to the Opening Ceremony boutique in 2010.

photographs by the author

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