Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The 1855 Egbert L. Viele House - 8 West 28th Street

In 1855 John E. Kinnier erected two handsome brownstone-faced houses at Nos. 6 and 8 West 28th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway.  At 25-feet wide and four stories tall, the high-stooped homes were intended for well-heeled buyers.

At the time Egbert Ludovicus Viele was the State Engineer of New-Jersey and would be appointed Chief Engineer of Central Park in 1856.  Born in 1825, he was graduated from West Point in 1847 and had served in the Mexican American War.  He was made engineer of Brooklyn's Prospect Park in 1860, but left the job to fight in the Civil War.  In 1863, upon his return to civilian life with the rank of general, he was made Commissioner of Parks.

Viele and his wife, the former Teresa Griffin, moved into No. 8 West 28th Street with their several children.  Like the other owners of upscale houses along the block, they filled it with expensive furnishings.  The New-York Daily Tribune later commented "General Viele traveled extensively, and possessed a valuable collection of art treasures."

General Egbert L. Viele - from the collection of the Library of Congress
Teresa had chronicled her life as the wife of an infantry soldier on the Texas frontier in her 1858 book Following the Drum.  It was republished in 1864, while the family lived here.

While her husband's name routinely appeared in print regarding public projects, Teresa busied herself with charitable works.  On November 21, 1867 the New-York Daily Tribune listed her as a member of the executive committee of The New-York Ladies' Southern Relief Association.  She kept high company within the group, whose president was Mrs. James J. Roosevelt.  Among the others on the committee were Mrs. James Stokes, Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, and Mrs. Dudley D. Field.

The Viele family had moved on in 1870 when the house was being operated as an upscale boarding house.  It was soon taken over by The Army and Navy Club.  Men's social clubs routinely were situated within exclusive residential neighborhoods.  In its 1873 edition, the Hand-Book to New York noted that the "brown-stone building, No. 8 West Twenty-eighth Street...has been elegantly fitted up as a club house.  The club now numbers over two hundred members." 

The Army and Navy Club did not last particularly long.  In 1875 The St. Nicholas Club, founded in June that year, moved in.  It, too, would not stay long.  The club moved to No. 12 East 29th Street in 1878 and the former house became home to the Sherman Club, a political group, and the Young Business Men's Association.

Architect J. B. Hamilton owned the property in 1882 when he personally designed alterations.  They included an extension into the rear yard.  The renovated space became home to Morelli's Restaurant, a popular spot for dinner meetings for several years.

The Thirteen Club routinely met at Morelli's.  The eccentric group celebrated the number 13.  On November 14, 1885, for instance, The New York Times reported that Judge McAdams had been re-elected its president here the night before.  "In thanking the company for their congratulations he referred to the fact that he should begin his thirteenth year in the civil court on January 13, 1886, and that the change by which he opened his first office at No. 13 Wall-street led him to his present distinction."

In April 1886 a group of insurance men, no doubt hoping to sway businessmen in the theatrical field to protect their properties, gave a dinner at Morelli's following a production of Evangline at Haverly's 14th Street Theatre.  They invited the composer and producer, Edward E. Rice and the male members of the cast.  The rampant sexism of the 19th century was reflected in The New York Times' comment "A rumor had been circulated to the effect that the invitation to the supper included the female members of the company, and both Manager Rice and his hosts were justly indignant thereat."  The article noted "The supper was one of Morelli's best efforts."

In May 1887 million Robert Hoe bought No. 8 at auction for $57,000--about $1.58 million today.  The New York Times described it as being "occupied by Morelli as a restaurant and by other organizations as a place of meeting as well as dining."  

Hoe was notified by Building Inspectors "that the westerly wall of the house...was not safe and should be rebuilt."  It was most likely the prospects of the necessary construction project that prompted Hoe to embark on a major remodeling.  The New York Times reported that he "decided to remodel the house, place a store underneath and bachelor apartments above."  The architectural firm of Charles Romeyne & Co. was hired to design the renovations.

Surprisingly, business went on as usual inside as the significant project commenced.  The Times explained "They began operations by shoring up the weak wall, but in doing so managed to throw the weight of the roof and heavy timbers on the opposite wall."

On the morning of April 12, 1888 Mrs. Zarah Cranni took a small table at the rear of Morelli's, overlooking the rear garden.  Zarah was noticeably pregnant.  Her tranquil morning tea ended abruptly.  The Times reported that around 10:40 a.m. the "crashing of falling timbers startled the people in the neighborhood of Broadway and Twenty-eighth street."  Parts of the third and fourth floors collapsed "with a great crash, carrying with it four working men and piling up a great mass of debris in the yards of several houses in the rear."

Some workmen jumped from the upper stories onto adjoining buildings.  The bay window of the house next door was ripped off and the rear extension was demolished.  One workman was killed and several others injured.

As the wall first gave way, "four bricks and a large piece of stone smashed in the window" where Zarah Cranni was sipping her tea.  The New York Times reported that the bricks and glass "did not strike her.  The lady was so frightened, however, that it brought on premature delivery."

The builder, Eramus D. Garnsey and his foreman, William Campbell, were arrested at the site.

When the dust cleared construction eventually resumed and was completed without further incident.  The third and fourth floors of the renovated building were clad in beige brick and trimmed in brownstone.  A two-story storefront now replaced the parlor and English basement levels.  That space became home to the newly-formed Equitable Bank.  On December 13, 1889 The Press reported that it had "launched into operation yesterday," adding "It is handsomely fitted up."

The trustees of the new bank soon ran into problems.  Only a month later, on January 31, 1890, The New York Times ran the headline "Banks Quickly Wrecked" and reported that warrants had been issued "for the arrest of the leading participants in a foolhardy conspiracy, which not alone has closed the Sixth National Bank and the Lenox Hill Bank...but also threatens the existence of the Equitable Bank, 8 West Twenty-eighth-street."  The prediction came true and the Equitable Bank collapsed soon thereafter.

The space became home to publisher J. W. Bouton's bookstore in May 1890.  The New York Times explained that here "he has much more commodious quarters for the display of his collection of rare old books."

The Fencers' Club was located directly above Bouton's bookstore.  On January 13, 1890 The Evening Telegram described the club's "more commodious quarters."  "The new suite d'armes is decorated in bronze and yellow, and a high dado of Japanese matting.  A sword shelf runs all around the room, and the walls are decorated with cross-swords, sabres, and masks."

The members of the Fencers' Club came from the highest echelons of society.  That was evident at the afternoon reception on May 26 that year.  The New York Times said "The rooms of the Fencers' Club at 8 West Twenty-eighth Street were well filled with ladies and gentlemen" who witnessed demonstrations of fencing before enjoying a 5:00 tea.  Among those participating in the demonstrations were millionaires Perry Belmont, Amory S. Carhart and James W. Gerard.  The guests included Ward McAllister and his daughter, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, and the daughters of tycoon Charles B. Alexander.

Intricate foliate carvings fill the spandrel panels of the upper floors.
The rest of the house contained upscale bachelor apartments.  The well-to-do residents began missing cash late in 1890.  The mystery came to an end in January 1891 when John Wallace walked into his room to find a 13-year old boy rifling through his things.  Louis Miller had already grabbed $160 in cash--equal to about $4,640 today.

Louis was the son of the building's janitor, John Miller.  On January 17 The Press explained "Louis has been in the habit of going in and out of the Twenty-eighth street house at will for some time past, and it is averred that hundreds of dollars have been stolen from the place, which is occupied by men only."   In court Wallace, perhaps feeling that the boy had learned his lesson, did not press charges.  John Miller, however, was of a different mind set.  "At the father's suggestion the boy was committed to the Juvenile Asylum."

In 1897 the former bookstore became home to the Knickerbocker Auction Rooms.  The firm would sell masterpieces of art, furniture, china and porcelain for years here.  On February 18, 1897, for instance, The Press reported on the results of the first day of the auction of the Cyrus W. Field estate.  "The collection includes paintings by Corot, Zein, and Cleveland Coxe, antique furniture, tapestries and bric-a-brac."

The items sold at the Knickerbocker Auction Rooms brought in large amounts of cash, a fact not overlooked by burglars.  On February 8, 1903 The New York Press reported on a brazen heist.  Burglars broke in through the basement, then broke through the door at the head of the stairs.  They were apparently less interested in the paintings, furs and other valuables than in cash.  "Finding nothing to suit their taste, another door was broken open to get to the second floor, and then the cracksmen attacked the safe."

The Knickerbocker Auction Rooms safe was directly in front of the second floor show window.  Undaunted, the burglars drilled a hole in the safe's door, broke open the first, and finally the second heavy doors then examined the contents.  They lit a gas jet in a rear room, then "placed chairs around the table, and settled down to a slow and careful selection of the different articles of value."  The crooks made off with cash, checks and "other valuable papers," and $2,000 worth of solid silverware.  The heist topped $60,000 in today's money.

The occupants of the apartments continued to be well-to-do.  In 1894 Modesto Salizano, consul general of Ecuador lived here; and at the turn of the architect Stanford White and Joseph Stanford split the rent on an apartment.  Neither of the men lived here, but used the rooms for entertainment. 

The Buffalo Courier described Joseph Stanford on June 27, 1906 as "a dilettante in the arts, who is as well known in the exclusive society of Paris and London as he is to the '400' of New York and Newport."  The article noted that the "sumptuous apartment that embraces the entire top floor of No. 8 West Twenty-eighth Street, was jointly used by both."

Stanford White - from the collection of the Library of Congress
The reason that the two wealthy men desired a private get-away was explained by the newspaper.  "Both Stanford and Stanford White gave dinners and other entertainments in this superbly furnished suite of rooms, which were talked about in whispers in the clubs and boudoirs of society.  Their guests were young girls of surpassing beauty and charm of person, but socially obscure.  At times one or two other boon men companions of the hosts were also bidden to join in the unique festivities."

The article said the girls, who "were not old enough to be called young women," were "supplied with unlimited quantities of champagne."  It was most likely the prominence of the men that precluded police intervention.  "Meanwhile, the wine-inspired songs and cries of the guests of Stanford and Stanford White would reach the ears of the policemen and detectives on the street without, who were waiting, waiting for other conclusive evidence to raid the place."

The Knickerbocker Auction Rooms was followed by Jack Slazenger's sporting goods store, which remained in the building until 1914.  In 1920 the Robert Hoe estate sold the building to a newly-formed company headed by C. Solomon, S. Sackheim and D. Greenbaum.  The District Republican Club leased rooms as its headquarters at the time and would remain throughout the 1930's.

Another renovation completed in 1945 resulted in a store on the ground floor, a "gelatine mixing and packing" plant on the second, and showrooms and offices on the third and fourth floors.  One of the spaces was home to Israel House in the 1950's, where "miscellaneous handicrafts and art goods, foodstuffs, jewelry, leather and metal goods" made in Israel were exhibited.

The neighborhood which would become known as Nomad greatly declined in the second half of the 20th century and No. 8 showed noticeable signs of neglect.  But the renaissance of the area brought change and on December 15, 2015 The New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant reported that Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, owners of Eleven Madison Park restaurant, planned to open Made Nice, at No. 8.  They described the restaurant as a "fast-casual spot."

During the 2020 protests the storefront was boarded up.
The restaurant opened in the summer of 2016.  A mural by Shepard Fairey decorates a wall.  Despite its significant abuse, No. 8 West 28th Street retains much of its appearance following Charles Romeyn's 1888 renovation.

photographs by the author


  1. The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing....

  2. The New York Times: "When There Was Water, Water Everywhere"

    [Viele's] historic map of the city's underground waterways is pinned to the wall at many engineering firms.

    "[...] In essence, the map shows Manhattan as the watery idyll it once was. On the map, Minetta Stream runs under Washington Square. Uptown, near First Avenue and 103rd Street, water pools and collects in a large pond. A creek zigzags under the intersection of Broadway and 25th Street.

    In illuminating what the island looked like before it was filled in, paved over, dug up and forested with skyscrapers, the map provides information Manhattan builders find indispensable: where former underground streams are; where soil quality might be poor because of erosion; where the island's original shoreline ends and landfill begins. Despite its age, the map will most likely never be outdated or improved upon, in part because it would be nearly impossible to trace the island's streams today. [...]"

  3. I see that the article in the Buffalo Courier was published two days after Stanford White's murder.

    1. yes. You'd think they would have been less graphic in talking about his side life so soon.

  4. I got to 46 Morton Street (whose "garden side" I gaze at sometimes hours a day when my focus wanders upward from my screen) because of this Viele house page. An omission and a half seemed so glaring I left it in my Daytonian tab to reread more closely.

    How could an NYC blog discuss Egbert L. Viele and ignore Viele's enduring Manhattan ground moisture map? It's arguably the city's map in longest everyday use. I've used a detail as a screensaver since January 2012 when I read Will Hunt's "Ghost River" entry in the Paris Review blog

    As for the half-omission, I'm prepared to believe that no music publisher ever occupied the Viele house, but surely its witness to the birth, heyday, and departure of Tin Pan Alley from that block of 28th Street deserved mention.

    ... None of which diminishes the Daytonian's unmatched value as a civic treasure. Your 46 Morton piece brought me Christmas on the 4th of July. Thanks for being! --dFisher

    1. The Viele map did not escape me, nor did the Tin Pan Alley history; but I'm constantly tasked with keeping the posts concise enough not to foster complaints about length. Since there was no musical tenant in the Viele house, working that detail in seemed extraneous. Perhaps not. At any rate, I'm glad you enjoy the posts and I'll try to be more informative. Thanks for commenting.