Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The John C. Sheehan House - 464 West 23rd Street

The windows originally wore molded frames, as seen in the house to the left.
In 1857 builder and developer Morgan Pindar completed a long row of identical Italianate style homes on the south side of West 23rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.   The 22-foot wide brownstone-faced residences were intended for well-to-do families.  High stoops led to the double entrance doors within arched doorways below rounded pediments.  The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows opened onto cast iron balconies.  The sills of the upper floor openings sat on miniature brackets, and their architrave frames wore gently arched lintels.

As the row was being erected Garrett Ellis Winants listed himself as a "contractor" at No. 41 Renwick Street.  But he had larger plans for his business and in 1856 petitioned the Committee on Wharves, Piers and Slips to build a dock 30-feet into the Hudson River "for the loading and unloading of vessels."  The petition was granted and he soon operated from Pier 40 with a contract to remove ashes, manure, dirt and garbage from city streets.

Winants purchased No. 464 from Pindar.  (The sale came just in time for the developer.  The Financial Panic of 1857 devastated the real estate industry and, although he sold all of the homes on the 23rd Street row, Pindar teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 1858.)

The Winants had a daughter, Mary Frances (who went by Fannie), and a terrier named Mac.  When the dog ran off in the summer of 1864 the family was understandably upset.  Winants placed an ad in the New York Herald on July 30 describing the "small, black and tan Terrier Dog.  Answers to the name of Mac.  Whoever will return him to 464 West Twenty-third street, will receive the above reward."  That reward, $10, would be a satisfying $168 today.

On October 25, 1865 Fannie was married to George H. Hillyer in the parlor.  Remarkably, the bride was just 13-years old; her husband 22.  Possibly a condition of the marriage was that the couple live under the watchful eyes of Fannie's parents, at No. 464.

Winants had been placed in the uncomfortable position of facing a New York State investigation into Tammany corruption that year.  The State was looking into questionable deals made by City Inspector Francis A. I. Booles, including the contract held by Winants.   He was subjected to interrogation like:

Q: From the period of Mr. Boole's advent into the office of city inspector down to the present time, could the ashes and street dirt have been removed from the city, free of expense to the city?

A: Yes, sir, I think is could have been done free of charge.

Q: Do you know whether Mr. Boole was acquainted with the fact that it could be so done?

A:  I think he was.

Garrett E. Winants was in court on January 25, 1870 for a far different reason.   Late on the previous night his wife had been awakened by the sound of breaking glass.  She awakened her husband and they both crept into the dark hallway to find the source.  Two burglars heard their footsteps and attempted to escape, but Mrs. Winants was not about to let them do so.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "The lady, with revolver in hand, mounted guard at the door of the room in which the burglars were at work and threatened to shoot, prevented their egress."  In the meantime, Garrett locked all the doors, trapping them inside.  "Thus trapped," said the article, "the thieves had but one way of getting out, and that was by making a desperate leap from the window, a distance of some thirty feet."  The men made it to the sidewalk, but Mrs. Winants "called out at the top of her voice for them to surrender."  Two policemen heard her cries and arrived just in time to "catch a glance of the rascals."

A chase ensued, described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as "an exciting pursuit over fences and across sheds," which ended in their capture.  The newspaper said "The apprehension of the thieves is due in a great measure to the courage and presence of mind of Mrs. Winants."

Tall louvered shutters could be closed while still allowing air to enter the parlor.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Fannie and George had a son, Clarence, known affectionately as Gussie.  Tragically, Fannie died in the 23rd Street house on May 29, 1872 at just 19-years old.  Her funeral was held two days later in the parlor where she had been married.

George and Gussie continued to live with the Winants.  He was a successful real estate broker.  The extended family remained in the house until around 1873.

They were followed by James S. Aitkin and his wife, Helen E., and their four daughters.  Born in New York City in 1830 to Scottish parents, he had started out in the dry goods business in 1856.   By now his wholesale business at No. 359 Broadway was a thriving operation.

The family had not been in the 23rd Street house long when Helen died.  Her funeral was held in the house on January 10, 1875.  Aitkin stayed on for nine years, selling it on May 1, 1884 to James Kearney for $26,000 (about $700,000 today).  It was the first of a rapid succession of turnovers, the house being sold three times before 1887.

It became the home of John W. Wolfe, an official with the Prison Association of New York.  Among his many duties was sitting on the committees of Discharged Convicts, of Prison Discipline, of Detentions, and the Finance Committee.  
He and his wife, Jane, had six children, only three of which had survived childhood and were now grown adults.  

Wolfe's early story was a romantic one.  In 1846, at the age of 23, he went to California "as one of a band of adventurous spirits known as Stevenson's Regiment, First Volunteers of New-York," according to The New York Times.  President James A. Polk had chosen Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson to raise a regiment of volunteers for service in the Mexican-American War.  They were to be all "unmarried men of good habits and varied pursuits."

In 1875 the Associated Pioneers of Territorial Days of California was formed in New York, its goals being “to form a more perfect union of the Pioneers of California, now residents of the Atlantic States, and to cultivate social intercourse between them.”  Wolfe was among the original 49 members, described as the "elite" of the Gold Rush and military history of California.  Other members included John A. Sutter, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Francis D. Clark.

As had been the case with Helen E. Aitkin, Wolfe would not enjoy the house for long.  The 66-year old died in the house in 1889, his funeral held here on June 10.  The New York Times remarked "Many veterans of the Mexican war, of whose society the deceased was an associate, were present."

Following Jane's death in May 1892, the house was purchased by Tammany politician James Charles Sheehan, who paid $21,000, or about $609,000 in today's money.  Born in Buffalo, he "grew up to be a political boss there," according to The New York Times on March 1, 1892.  In 1886 he moved to New York City after having been appointed Secretary of the Aqueduct Commission.  "He promptly joined the Tammany forces," commented The Times.

Just before moving into the 23rd Street house Sheehan had been appointed a Police Commissioner with a salary of $5,000 a year (or about $145,000 today).  The New York Times was notably Tammany-wary and in reporting on Sheehan's new position on March 1, 1892, it noted "He is classed as a very shrewd Tammany politician.  There is some complaint among the old Tammany crowd that Sheehan has been advanced too rapidly, but this deal was agreed upon long ago by Richard Croker, Mayor Grant and Commissioners Martin and Gilroy and Voorhis."

Sheehan's purchase of the house no doubt had much to do with his marriage to Marian Mulhall (known familiarly as Minnie) that same year.  The couple would have three children while living in here, Margaret Blanche, born in 1893; John Cyril, born in 1896; and William, born in 1901.   Also living in the house was Minnie's widowed mother, Margaret.

When baby Margaret was born Senator Edward D. Murphy, Jr. presented her with a Skye Terrier named Tammany.  On September 10 Sheehan had coal delivered and, according to the Buffalo Morning Express, "Two brawny coal-heavers put the coal into the cellar.  When they left at 5 o'clock Senator Murphy's dog had disappeared."  Mysteriously, this was not the first time the terrier had been kidnapped.

Sheehan placed an advertisement in the newspapers offering a $50 reward for the dog's return.  It proved incentive enough (about $1,470 today) to produce a string of boys with dogs.  The New York Sun reported on September 16 "A red-faced youth, with a battered brown derby hat pulled down over his rumpled hair, rang the door-bell of No. 464 West 23d Street several nights ago, and tilted his hat over his eyes when Police-Commissioner John C. Sheehan came to the door.  'Here's Tammany,' the stranger said."

This was the fifth Tammany to have been brought up the stoop that day.  Although the bedraggled dog looked nothing like Tammany, it broke free of the boy and "ran helter skelter up the stairs until it reached little Miss Sheehan's nursery."

According to the article, baby Margaret exclaimed "goo,goo" and Minnie, (who was "an expert in juvenile phonetic language") declared "Baby says it's Tammany."  Still not convinced, Sheehan paid the boy $10 for the pup "because his baby like it."  As it turned out, after "two baths and the application of combs" the dog did turn out to be the authentic Tammany.

Unbelievably, the dog was kidnapped again a few days later.  This time Sheehan refused to pay a reward.  He presumed that political rivals saw Tammany as a Democratic mascot.  "It may be that the thieves want to rob me of the mascot, but as long as I have got the baby I have got all the mascot I want," he told reporters.

In December 1893 The New York Times reported on an investigation into the police department by the New-York Society for the Prevention of Crime.   Its findings suggested that Commissioner Sheehan used his political and police power to, among other things,  instruct police captains to ignore the operations of brothels and of saloons that sold liquor on Sundays.

The State Senate got involved, establishing the Lexow Committee to investigate corruption.   The Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper was astonished at the testimonies of corruption under Commissioner Sheehan.  “The most startling admission the Police Commissioner made was that he believed that poolroom keepers had paid money to the police for protection and that he had been utterly unable to find out who received the money.”  The periodical ranted “Such revelations of official incompetency, if not absolute knavery, have seldom been made…If exposure of rottenness could secure the redemption of a city, the redemption of New York would be sure.”

John C. Sheehan, from Satan's Invisible World Displayed or Despairing Democracy, 1897 (copyright expired)

As the committee's investigation deepened, Sheehan's patience with the newspapers' coverage of wore thing.  On December 9, 1894 he commented to a friend, "Lies by wholesale have been printed about me during the last four days."

His anger toward the press did not abate and in 1896 he took the editors of The World to court, suing them for slander.  The newspaper had referred to Sheehan as a "padrone" following contracts he made for the building of sewers.  His lawyers contended in part that the word implied:

A person who engages workmen at his own rates of compensation, takes advantage of their impoverished condition and imposes on them in every conceivable and possible manner; who robs them of their hard earned wages, is unsympathetic and indifferent to the misery suffered by such workmen and caused by his unjust acts, selfishness and impositions.

Much different press came in 1903.  On September 30 The Hempstead Sentinel reported "John C. Sheehan, leader of the Greater New York Democracy, is lying seriously ill at his home, No. 464 West Twenty-third street, from a surgical operation performed Saturday for the removal of a tumor of the head."  Sheehan survived the operation and the recovery.

On February 9, 1916 Sheehan arrived at his office at 10:30, sat down at his desk and "was soon busy with legal documents," according to The Sun.  Half an hour later a clerk, John Meade, heard his name called out weakly and rushed to Sheehan's office.  "When he entered Mr. Sheehan's private office he found his chief unconscious, with his head on the desk."  Meade called for an ambulance, but Sheehan was dead before it arrived.

Two years later, on June 5, 1918, an advertisement appeared in the Evening Telegram offering the 21-room house for "quick sale."  The ad mentioned it sat within a "splendid renting location."

It was purchased by Albert Jackson who operated it as a lodging house.  The term differentiated it from a boarding or rooming house.  Lodging houses offered no amenities like meals or common space.  Instead, for a much cheaper fee the lodgers received an over-night bed with (hopefully) fresh sheets.  Jackson offered accommodations to 65 persons in the formerly upscale home.  He gave it the name "The New Transit Hotel."

The property was upgraded to a rooming house by the mid-1920's.  Living here in 1926 was single mother Freda Graff and her 18-month old son.  On July 24 the 25-year-old wrote a note to a neighbor asking that he take care of the boy, then placed a gas tube in her mouth.  The neighbor, Patrick Hayden, found
her body as well as the child, who was "in a dazed condition in another room," according to the Daily News.

Another roomer was Daniel Finlayson, here in 1931.  The 27-year old and three friends went to the Coney Island Beach on July 12 that year.  The conditions all weekend were dangerous because of riptides.  Finlayson never returned home to West 23rd Street.  He was caught in the undertow and his body washed ashore several hours later.

In 1941 the balcony and stoop were gone, the window detailing shaved off, and a store installed in the basement.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
Thirty-six year old Jesse Forehand lived in the building in 1936 when he was involved in a violent labor demonstration.  He and 1,000 other striking seamen clashed with police at the Chelsea Docks at the foot of West 21st Street.  According to the Brooklyn newspaper the Times Union, "the battle was waged for three-quarters of an hour."  Among those arrested for disorderly conduct was Forehand.

By then the stoop had been removed and the entrance moved to the former English basement level and there was now a store, as well.  Two more alterations came in 1968 and 1977, the latter resulting in two apartments per floor.

Although greatly disfigured by the renovations, it does not take much imagination to envision the house as it appeared when one of Tammany Hall's most notable leaders lived here.

photographs by the author

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