Thursday, July 16, 2020

The 1840 Charles L. Hackstaff House - 408 West 20th Street

As Clement Clarke Moore sold off building plots within his family’s former country estate, Chelsea, Don Alonzo Cushman was greatly responsible for the development of the new neighborhood.  Cushman erected rows of speculative, high end homes in Chelsea, such as the distinctive Cushman Row.  Begun in 1839 the string of seven elegant Greek Revival rowhouses sat on the south side of West 20th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, facing the grounds of the General Seminary.

The homes were completed in 1840.  No. 392 (renumbered 408 in 1865) was identical to its neighbors.  Faced in orange brick and trimmed in brownstone, the 21-foot wide house was reserved, its heavy entablatured entrance and molded window lintels typical of the style.  Yet other details hinted that this was intended for an upscale family.  

The Greek Revival fencing was sumptuous, with overblown finials in the shape of palmettes, or anthemions.  The paneled door sat between paneled pilasters and leaded sidelights beneath a generous overlight.  And the attic windows were framed in delicate carved swags that added a touch of refinement.

The house was for years the home to the Reverend Milton C. Dotten of the General Theological Seminary.  He remained here at least through 1877.

In September 1882, soon after their wedding, Charles Ludric Hackstaff and his bride, the former Margaret Euphemia Hoffman, moved into the house.   Their choice of location was no doubt influenced by the fact that Margaret was the daughter of the wealthy Rev. Dean Eugene Augustus Hoffman of the General Theological Seminary.    

Both Charles and Margaret had deep American roots.  The Hackstaff family settled on Long Island in the 18th century, and Margaret's earliest American ancestor, Martin Hoffman, arrived in New Amsterdam by 1661.

The newlyweds were not alone in the house.  Before the end of the year Charles's brother, William G. Hackstaff, moved into rooms on the third floor and the following year his mother, Anna, moved into a room on that floor as well.

The Hackstaffs would have three daughters, Mary Elmendorf, born in 1882; Margaret Hoffman, born in 1884; and Caryl, who arrived in 1895.

Shortly after Anna Hackstaff's death on May 5, 1888, William moved out.  

The Greek Revival style fencing sprouts overblown palmettes.
The Hackstaff girls grew up experiencing the routine and lifestyle expected of wealthy families.  The Hackstaff summer residence was on Long Island.  On September 7, 1901 Brooklyn Life reported on Labor Day festivities among Easthampton's "cottage contingent."  The article noted "Mrs. Charles L. Hackstaff has been entertaining the Very Rev. Dean Hoffman and Mrs. Hoffman, of Manhattan.

It was the last time Margaret's father would visit the Easthampton residence.  Nine months later, on June 17, 1902, he died leaving an estate estimated at $15 million (more in the neighborhood of $460 million today).  On June 26 the New York Herald reported that he had left $360 to "religious, benevolent and educational organizations, but gives the bulk of his fortune to his widow and four children."  

As their daughters neared their debutante years they were groomed for lives in high society.  On July 9, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advertiser reported that among the passengers on the Baltic returning from London were "many social celebrities," including "Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Hackstaff [and] the three Misses Hackstaffs."  And later, on December 13, 1904 the newspaper noted, "Mrs. Charles L. Hackstaff gave a large reception this afternoon."

Margaret's substantial inheritance coupled with her daughters' upcoming debuts may have prompted the family's decision to move uptown.  They sold No. 408 to James Boyd and purchased a fashionable home at 58 East 57th Street.

Boyd had no intention of living in the house, however.  On December 5, 1905 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald offering the "three story attic high stoop House."  The ad pointed out that it overlooked the "lawn of the seminary" and sat within a "restricted neighborhood" (assuring the potential buyer that the block could not be invaded by businesses).

The house was purchased by the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.  It was used for the association's Relief Bureau and named Briar Brae Lodge.  On May 12, 1916 the Bureau's superintendent, H. Ingram, wrote to the editor of The New York Times, asking readers to donate "floor coverings, rugs, chairs, couches, tables, and pictures" not only for the 20th Street location, but for its Caroline Rest Home for Mothers and Babies, and the Sea Breeze Fresh Air Home.

Later that month another appeal was issued, this one for sewing machines.  The Association had created "sewing shops" in the 20th Street house to "provide work for women who, for one reason or another, are unable to work in regular occupations."  The women made articles for use in hospitals and other institutions, presumably sheets, pillow cases and the like.  In December the house was opened to the public to exhibit the type of work done by the women in the sewing rooms.

Two days before Christmas the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor hosted 80 elderly women at a luncheon at the Hippodrome.  The New York Times reported that the women "have found employment with generous compensation in the association's sewing rooms, 408 West Twentieth Street."

The house around 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Association left West 20th Street before 1922 when the house was operated as a respectable rooming house.  On June 8 that year an advertisement offered "Very large room, overlooking well kept grounds; near bath; furnished, unfurnished."

photos via
The Hackstaff house escaped conversion to apartments until 1960 when a careful renovation resulted in a triplex in the basement through second floors and a duplex above.  Much of the 1840 interior detailing survives, including the heavily-veined Greek Revival mantels, paneled mahogany doors, ceiling details and woodwork.  And from the street, No. 408 West 20th Street is remarkably unchanged after 180 years.

photographs by the author

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