Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Common Buildings With Uncommon Fire Escapes - 233-235 Ninth Avenue

Around 1850 two mirror image Italianate buildings were erected on the west side of Ninth Avenue, between 24th and 25th Streets.  Faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone, each had a store at street level and "flats," or apartments above.  Identical cast metal cornices completed the design.  At some point, most likely in the first decade following the Civil War, ornate cast iron fire escapes were installed.  They spanned the two center windows, so should fire break out in one building its residents could clamber over to the other.  The firewall between the two structures would at least slow the fire's progress until the tenants could escape to the street.

The fire escapes constitute industrial Victorian artwork.

Despite the buildings' proximity to the upscale homes of West 23rd Street (including the 1845 row of mansions called London Terrace), Nos. 215 and 217 Ninth Avenue filled with working class families.  (The buildings received new addresses in 1868--233 and 235.)

By 1855 August Kallendorf lived above his grocery store in No. 215.  Another grocer, John C. Middendorf, also lived in the building and may have been employed by Kallendorf.  Next door lived Thomas Crudden and his family.  A bootmaker, it appears he also operated his store in the ground floor space.

Although he still lived at No. 215 in 1857 August Klattendorf had moved his grocery to Spring Street.  The store was now operated by Richard Fulle.  And the boot store in No. 217 was now home to Joseph McElroy's shoe business.  (McElroy lived nearby on West 25th Street.)

In the early 1860's Joseph McElroy moved his shoe store to No. 198 Ninth Avenue.  His former shop became home to May Keziah's fancygoods store.  The grocery next door at No. 215 was now operated by Henry Baumann under the name Baumann & Co.

In the meantime, the upper floors housed a variety of blue collar tenants.  In 1861 saloon owner Joseph T. Martin, shoemaker Henry Miller, and James Weir, a clerk, lived in No. 215; while next door were another clerk, Henry Hull, policeman William Jenkins, and Levi S. I. Roome, a smith.   The following year, on January 9, 1862, Jenkins's funeral was held in his family's rooms.  He was just 38-years old.

The houses were lost in foreclosure in February 1864.  The auction sale described them as "the valuable four story Buildings, 215 and 217 Ninth avenue."  While Henry Baumann continued running his grocery store at No. 215, with the change in landlords the store space at No. 217 became home to John Roche's saddlery shop.  Like Baumann, he would here, selling leather goods like harnesses, into the next decade.

Both buildings were owned by Anne F. Blanchet until her death around 1882.  On March 2, 1883 her estate sold the properties to Ahrend F. Meyer and his wife, Sophie.  The couple paid $32,000, or about $843,000 today.  The store at No. 233 became T. Brown's bakery in 1885.  By 1893 it was home to Frederick Meyer's grocery store.  (He was quite possibly a relative of his landlords.)  In 1897 Solomon Cohen leased the space next door for his pawn shop.

photo by Beyond My Ken

For the most part the upstairs tenants continued to be hardworking and respectable.  But occasionally a rogue moved in--like Harris Palmer.  Late on Saturday night, January 12, 1889 the assistant foreman of the Street Cleaning Department, Robert Burke, was standing at the corner of 39th Street and Ninth Avenue in the shadows.  The Press reported "he saw a young man teach a hunchback to pick pockets."  The instructor was 22-year old Harris Palmer.  Both he and the 18-year old hunchback were arrested.

Another tenant made the news nine months later.  On November 4 The Evening World reported "Leo Haunel, of 233 Ninth Avenue, bookkeeper for Banker George Weber...was held for trial at the Tombs to-day on his employer's charge that he stole 4,800 two-cent postage stamps, given him to use on the mail."  (The embezzlement would be equal to about $2,750 today).

Ahrend and Sophie Meyer sold No. 233 to David Lubelsky on February 1, 1897, while retaining ownership of No. 235.  David and Sarah Lubeksly lived in an apartment in the building.    Two years later the innovative fire escapes proved their worth when fire broke out at 6:31 a.m. on September 22, 1899.  The Lubelskys hired architect Charles H. McAfee to make renovations, including some new walls.

The newly-formed paint business of Freidlander & Silverstein opened in the store at No. 233 in December 1902.  Next door Solomon Cohen was still operating his pawn shop.  It had become the center of a well-publicized news story a month earlier.

On the night of November 21, 1902 a cheaply-dressed woman entered the shop.  Unfortunately for Catherine McCluskey, the two men chatting with Cohen were Detectives Butler and Foley.  She laid a glittering diamond and sapphire ring on the counter and asked $150 for it.  Cohen asked her if she knew its value to which she replied, "About $200."  He countered "That ring is worth $1,000.  Where did you get it?"  (That assessment would equal about $30,700 today.)  The Evening Telegram said "He said this loud enough for the detectives to hear, and they at once began to question the woman."

She explained that the ring had been given to her husband by his sister about four years ago.  "She said their money had run low and she wanted to pawn it," said the New York Press.  The detectives were doubtful and Mrs. McCluskey was arrested.

At the station house she admitted that she was employed as a scrubwoman at Madison Square Garden.  One evening following the Horse Show she found the ring in the Vanderbilt box while cleaning up.  She watched the newspapers for notices and a possible reward, but when none appeared she decided to pawn it.  

The temptation was understandable.  The New York Press said "She is married and has six children, the eldest 11 years old, and her husband, Michael, is a longshoreman."  Michael was out of work at the time and there was "little money in the house."  Neighbors told a reporter that "she has always worked hard and has practically supported her six children, her husband having had little success in obtaining work."

The Evening Telegram reported "when told she would have to be locked up, Mrs. McCluskey cried bitterly and then fainted.  She begged the police to send for her youngest child."  What the poor woman had initially seen as a stroke of good luck became even more disastrous.  She was not only held in jail for trial, but was fired from her job.

The following spring Arhend and Sarah Meyer sold No. 235 to Solomon Cohen.  He would continue operating his pawn shop here into the 1920's.  The store next door was home to Sylvain Metzger's butcher shop by 1915.  He lived upstairs and remained in the space until declaring bankruptcy in March 1921.

Maggie Tweed lived in an apartment in No. 233 in 1906.  She was estranged from her husband, Frank Tweed, a nephew of the infamous Tammany leader William M. "Boss" Tweed.   Frank worked nearby at the Reed Construction Company on West 24th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  He was summoned to appear in court on July 31 that year for failing to support his wife.  Despite his uncle's vast wealth, he pleaded poverty, saying he earned only $10.50 a week.  He was ordered to pay Maggie $3 of that amount.

Solomon Cohen's pawn shop was taken over by Benjamin Jeffe by 1934.  It was the scene of a terrifying robbery on March 25 that year.  The Rochester Times-Union reported "Four robbers, each carrying an automatic pistol, walked into the pawnshop of Benjamin Jeffe, 235 Ninth Avenue, today, bound four men in the shop and departed with several thousand dollars worth of jewelry."  While the two clerks and two customers helplessly watched, the bandits "leisurely selected jewelry valued at several thousand dollars and other articles, and escaped," reported the North Shore Daily Journal.

photo via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The two buildings continued to house middle-income families throughout the 20th century.  In the 1980's and '90's the store at No. 233 was home to seafood store, Starfish Enterprises.  In its December 18, 1989 issue New York Magazine recommended its "many varieties of smoke salmon, sliced or whole" and cautioned "Starfish delivers only in the Chelsea area, so stop in and make your selection."

Two years later The New York Times journalist Susan Hermann Loomis reported on a less likely fare--alligator meat.  On January 17, 1990 she wrote "alligator meat has been transformed from an obscure Southern specialty to a dish with cachet, and the market for the meat is booming."  She noted "In the New York region, sources for alligator meat include Starfish Enterprises, 233 Ninth Avenue."

Although the storefronts have been brutally altered and the lintels of No. 233 shaved flat, the upper floors of both buildings retain much of their early 19th century appearance--including those remarkable fire escapes.

photographs by the author


  1. I've loved these particular fire escapes forever. Thank you for a wonderful post, as usual.

  2. Love all your posts, just wanted to mention it. Thanks for this site, I've recommended it to many people over the years.

    1. Thanks so much for that. I appreciate you're saying so.