Thursday, August 6, 2020

The 1832 Asa B. Meech House - 108 Washington Place

The flurry of building in Greenwich Village in the late 1820's and '30's prompted mason and builder John Nichols to purchased seven lots on West Washington Place.   (West Washington Place was separated from Washington Place to the east by Sixth Avenue at the time.)  He sold a few to other men also engaged in the building craft and they cooperatively erected a row of handsome Federal style houses along the row.

No. 35 West Washington Place was completed in 1832 and, like its neighbors, was faced in Flemish bond red brick.  It rose two-and-a-half stories tall, its attic story punctured by two dormers.  The brownstone basement level was protected by Federal-style iron fencing with anthemion finials. 

The initial purchaser quickly resold the house in 1833 to Asa B. Meech, the principal in the commission business Asa B. Meech & Co. and his wife, Elizabeth.   The couple had been married in Buffalo, New York in 1819 where Meech had begun his career in "a general mercantile business" with partner Hiram Pratt.  Around 1825 he founded Asa B. Meech & Co., only the second forwarding and commission firm in that city.

Meech had been in New York City five years at the time of his purchasing the house.  He had wasted no time in establishing himself in the city.  By the 1840's he was an alderman and as well owned much property in Greenwich Village and downtown.

The couple remained in the West Washington Place house for 14 years before moving back to Buffalo in 1847.  Before leaving they transferred a large amount of property on Christopher and West Fourth Streets to Rufus Meech, presumably their son.

The next family in the house took in roomers in their home, a practice that was common in the mid-19th century.  Their 1853 ad made it clear that they wanted their domestic peace to remain intact--not even offering food except on Sunday:

A small private family have an elegant suit of rooms handsomely furnished, pleasantly situated, to let to single gentlemen; where there are no children.  Rooms supplies with hot and cold water, and will be taken care of...Meals on Sunday if required.

An advertisement five years later gave a better description of the accommodations the roomer would enjoy.  Nearly the entire second floor was rented furnished, encompassing a "front Parlor, front room...and Bedroom adjoining, with use of bath room."  Again, the ad was explicit in saying "private family; no boarders."

By 1861 the house was home to the Labatut family, who continued to rent rooms.  On December 12 that year they advertised "Gentlemen or a family desiring a comfortable home, with a French family, can obtain handsome accommodations on moderate terms; house contains all the modern improvements."

The roomer who answered that ad did not work out--possibly because of his interest in the ladies.  Four months later he was looking for another home:

A gentleman bachelor, who is suffering from the consequences of a paralytical attack, wants a Room, with all comfort, and plain Board for himself and servant man, who occupies the room with him, in a private family who have no other boarders, and where he can find sufficient ladies society for social intercourse, he being entirely unoccupied."

Caroline Labatut seems to have been widowed by now.  She had three grown children, George, William and Mary.  The title to the house was in William's name and, interestingly, he sold it to his sister in April 1877.  Family relations did not get in the way of the transaction and Mary paid $12,700 for the property--about $320,000 in today's money.  

It was most likely at this time that the house was dramatically updated.  The attic floor was raised to full height and capped with a neo-Grec cornice, the parlor windows were extended to the floor, and stylish neo-Grec double entrance doors were installed.   Upon Mary's marriage to Arthur C. Runyan the couple moved nearby to Christopher Street. 

A Mrs. Howe was renting rooms from Caroline in 1879 when she became the victim of a purse snatcher.  On September 14 The New York Herald wrote "James Riley, an Ulster county lad, who had been sent to this city by his father to seek his fortune, failed to get any work."  In despair, said the article, he "snatched a pocketbook from Mrs. Howe, of No. 35 West Washington place, on Friday night."  The wayward boy was held on a charge of highway robbery.

By the early 1890's, with Washington Place now spanning Sixth Avenue, the house had the new address of No. 108 Washington Place.  Caroline was charging $2 and $3.50 for "nicely furnished double rooms" in 1891.  The higher rate would equal about $100 today, presumably for a month.

On April 24, 1893 Benjamin W. Buchanan and his wife took rooms on the top floor.  The 69-year old had been an attention with the New York Supreme Court for 35 years.  Around Christmas he had been diagnosed with dropsy (known today as edema) and dyspepsia.  Subsequently, according to The Evening Post, "For some time past he had been extremely feeble and could not eat.  He was also troubled with insomnia."

It did not help that Caroline Labatut was having work done on the house.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said on April 28 "He could not rest.  For two days plumbers have been at work in the house and disturbed him during the day.  He had become melancholy on account of his trouble."

At around 6:00 on the morning of April 28 Benjamin got up and dressed.  He told his wife he was not feeling well and was going to the roof to get fresh air.  "He said that it would brighten him up and left the room," reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

A few minutes later "a little newsboy," Charles Brazzo was passing by the house.  "He saw a man standing on the edge of the roof at 108," reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  "The man drew a razor across his throat and jumped from the roof.  He struck the railing on the stoop and bounced out on the pavement."  The newsboy ran for a policeman, who summoned a doctor.  But Buchanan died on the sidewalk within minutes.  The Evening Post remarked "The gash in his throat was sufficient to have caused him to bleed to death."

Caroline Labatut died in 1897.  Mary Labatut Runyan retained possession until 1916 when the 22-foot wide house was sold to Dr. James F. Navoni.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide commented that he "will alter the premises into an apartment dwelling."  On August 6 The New York Herald added "It formerly was occupied by three families, but will be altered into a duplex apartment."

Navoni's renovations included a grouped studio window and balconette at the second floor.  New York Herald, August 6, 1916 (copyright expired)
Greenwich Village had become the center of New York City's artist community and Dr. Navoni responded by installing a studio window on the second floor.  His tenants reflected the trend.  In 1917 artist Sania Rosental Brown lived here, and in 1918 Impressionist and Modernist Frank Osborn was living and working in a studio apartment.  Both he and Brown exhibited at The Society of Independent Artists in 1917.

The Federal style ironwork along the areaway survives.
A different sort of artist moved in that year when Mrs. J. W. Ashley signed a lease in May on the basement and parlor level duplex.   Isabel E. Ashley was known to silent movie fans as Isabel O'Madigan.  She played the role of Mrs. Archibald in two movies that year, Bab's Matinee Idol and Bab's Diary.  

Isabel's husband, James W. Ashley, had been an actor as well, but was now engaged in theatrical management.  In 1918 James was traveling with Ladies First and was in Cleveland when he mailed off a love letter.  There were two problems--the letter was not to Isabel and rather than sending it to the intended 122nd Street address he inadvertently sent it to Washington Place.

In December Isabel sued for divorce, exposing the contents of the letter for all to read:

I sent you all my love, kisses, a million tons of love. I  love you, worship you, idolize you, my baby wife.

Despite the damning evidence, Ashley denied his wife's charges, blaming their troubles instead on her.  The Daily Argus reported that he "says that she is too much devoted to card games and costly gowns for his liking."  Isabel sought $25 per week in alimony, about $425 today.

Another resident involved in the theater was Philip Moeller, who lived here by the early 1920's.  A stage producer and director, playwright and screenwriter, he had helped organize the Washington Square Players and co-found the Theater Guild of New York.  He hosted meetings of the guild in his apartment here.

Guild members pose in Moeller's Washington Place apartment.  Moeller is second from left in the back row.  The Billboard, December 23, 1922 (copyright expired) 
On May 12, 1941 The New York Sun reported that No. 108 had been sold to J. Clark Bingham and Marion L. Bingham for $22,000 (about $382,000 in today's terms) "who will remodel the house."  Their renovations resulted in a duplex in the basement and parlor and one apartment each on the upper two upper floors.

A period mantel (top) survives in the otherwise sleek interiors.  via
That configuration lasted until 1972 when an alteration created two duplexes.  While a few of the 1832 details survive, the the sleek, nearly gut renovation left little of the original interiors.  

photographs by the author 

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