Monday, August 3, 2020

The Lost 1841 Bohllken House and Store - 46 Spring Street

As boys in knickers play on the sidewalk and street, a roomer gazes down from an attic window.  A curious child is precariously perched in the window next to him.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On November 16, 1841 the Post of New York reported on the upcoming auction of the "lot of ground...known as No. 46 Spring st."  The vacant plot ran 25 feet along Spring Street and 104 feet on Mulberry Street.  Before a year had passed the lot was filled with a wooden house and store.  The builder had created a no-nonsense structure which, curiously enough, wore a gambrel roof more expected in the Dutch houses of the previous century.

On October 12, 1842 the New-York Spectator reported that "the frame house and lot, No. 46 Spring street...sold for $3,300."  The amount would be equal to about $107,000 today.

The residents who made up the mixed population of the neighborhood came from a variety of countries.  Just two blocks to the north was Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, the congregation of which was predominantly Irish, but Germans also accounted for a significant percentage of the population.  

It is unclear if German immigrant John Bohlken was the initial purchaser of No. 46, but he lived and ran his grocery store here by 1853.  Bohlken and his wife, Catharine, had three children, Martin, Johannes (who also went by John) and Meta.  

Bohlken seems to have run a law-abiding operation.  On June 3, 1853 Assistant Alderman Thomas Whelan released a report on the retail stores in the district which sold alcohol.  It said in part:

It appears that in the Fourteenth Ward, during the past year, there have been about 380 places where liquor has been sold.  Of these about 360 were licensed.  Of the whole number, 13 were reported as disorderly [i.e., brothels], and 166 are family groceries.  Among these liquor sellers about 50 are Americans, 100 German and the remainder, say 230, are Irishmen.

Whelen listed John Bohlken as being among the non-offending operators.  

Bohlken's business did extremely well and in 1855 he opened a feed store in the adjoining building at No. 44 Spring Street.  In 1863 he moved his store to the west side, at the corner of Spring and Greenwich Streets.  The move triggered a rapid turnover of German-born grocery store operators at No. 46.

In 1863 it was run by Frederick Wandmacher.  Charles A. Misegaes took over in 1867 and three years later the store was owned by Frederick Schierhorst, and then by Frederick Kaupman in 1873.  Andrew Kehoe ran the grocery store from 1876 through at least 1880.

And then the Irish moved in.  In 1883 Mullen & McCarthy paid the $30 fee for its excise, or liquor, license.  It was a significant cost of business, almost $800 today.  The turnover continued with Joseph O'Leary operating the commercial space in 1887.  Two years later Mary McGuire had an entire new storefront installed.

The change in the demographics of the neighborhood was again reflected in the storekeeper's names.  The same year that Mary McGuire updated the store, Carlo Ciani got a license to run a sidewalk "newspaper, periodicals, fruits and soda-water" stand.  And in 1890 Joseph Cayo was listed as store owner on the excise license.

As the years passed, the residents of the upper floors and the patrons who came and went through the grocery store seem to have been well-behaved, working class citizens.  In 1895 and '96 Henry Schnepp was operating the sidewalk stand formerly run by Carlo Ciani.

An interesting side note occurred in 1901.  All three of John and Catharine Bohlken's children were deceased and the couple was living in a large apartment on West 14th Street.  The New York Herald called him "a wealthy retired grocer" and "a German of the old, shrewd type, who made his fortune in the early days of the city."  Bohlken had saved up his money and upon his retirement around 1880, he "invested about $150,000 in stocks and mortgages, and spent the remainder of his days in what was evidently quiet and happiness with his wife."

On September 1, 1901 John fell ill.  He died ten days later.  The New York Herald commented, "Mrs. Bohlken felt the blow deeply.  There were no children and she was left alone."  And Catharine was about to get a second blow.

John's two nephews, Frederick and George N. Bohlken, who lived in the Bronx, were also grocers.  When the will was read it revealed that he had left nearly his entire fortune to them.  Catharine received "but a small allowance for the remainder of her life."  The Herald commented "There is no suggestion that husband and wife were not on the best of terms, and this fact made her grief all the more poignant."

The building as it appeared on July 18, 1929.  From the collection of the New York Public Library
Catharine was unable to handle the double shock.  On October 9, 1901 The New York Herald reported "Grief and the sudden death of her aged husband and worry over the fact that he left her but a pittance of his fortune drove Mrs. John Bohlken to suicide.  Her body was found Sunday morning in the flat she occupied at No. 100 West Fourteenth StreetAll of the gas jets were turned on."

In the meantime the aging wooden building at the corner of Spring and Mulberry Streets survived into the Great Depression.  In 1932 For Sale signs were plastered on the storefront and by 1941 the site was a vacant lot.

The property is for sale in this 1932 photograph.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1954 the City of New York acquired the lot and the surrounding property by condemnation and assigned it to the Parks Department.  The John De Salvio Park (later renamed the DeSalvio Playground) was opened on December 15 the following year.

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