Saturday, September 19, 2020

The James B. Thomson House - 203 West 14th Street


Like the other homes along 14th Street west of fashionable Union Square, the row of houses at the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue were upscale.  At 25-feet wide and five-stories high above an English basement, they were intended for well-to-do owners.  High brownstone stoops led to the parlor level where, most likely, a cast iron balcony fronted the windows.  The fish-scale singled mansards which sat upon bracketed cornices were the latest touch in domestic fashion.

The second house from the corner, No. 123 (renumbered 203 in 1868), was home to James B. Thomson by 1855.   A mathematician, he no doubt had a substantial study or library in the house, for he tirelessly produced a series of textbooks for academic use.  His Thomson's Arithmetical Analysis; Or, Higher Mental Arithmetic for Advanced Classes was published that year.  Publisher Ivison & Phinney touted "Teachers will find this work superior, in many respects, to anything of the kind ever before published."  He had previously written volumes like Mental Arithmetic, Slate and Blackboard Exercises, and Practical Arithmetic. 

Thomson remained in the house until 1868, when it was purchased by Captain Francis R. Baby and his wife, Hilda.   Born in 1825, when Baby was 13 years old he "began a sailor's life on the great lakes," according to The New York Times later.  The couple had relocated from the West Coast where Captain Baby had commanded steamers for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company since 1852.  On October 29, 1862 the Sacramento Daily Union reported that the "old hero of the Pacific and Neptune of the Atlantic, the courtly Captain F. R. Baby, [was appointed] the New York agent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, whose knowledge of his duties is alone excelled by his generosity."

Captain Baby's generosity noted in the article was reflected in a gift to the city.  In the New York Departments of Parks Annual Report in April 1872, the director noted "There have been many interesting additions to the collection" and listed the new exhibits, including: "A Japanese Deer, Cervus sika, presented by Captain F. R. Baby."

Surprisingly, Francis and Hilda embarked on a two-year renovation project in 1875.  The house was converted to an apartment house with one apartment of nine rooms per floor.  The stoop was removed and the former basement level converted to a commercial space.   Perhaps because the neighborhood was on the border of the Cuban community, it was given the name The Senora.  On September 15, 1877 an advertisement in the New York Daily Herald read:

The elegantly arranged apartment house, The Senora, No. 203 West 14th st., is now ready for occupancy; neighborhood and appointments unexceptionable; favorable leases given to select parties.  The basement admirably adapted for physician's office.

A separate ad noted the upscale amenities: "every improvement, marble halls; stairs, furnished; halls heated; private stairs; parlors frescoed; janitor in attendance." 

Captain Baby and his wife continued to live here with their white-collar tenants.  In 1879 they included the Phillips family (David was a physician and Waldorf H. Phillips was an attorney), Augustine Butler and Philip S. Hastings, both clerks, and lawyer James C. Hays.  The ground floor office was home to the Dr. Charles J. Sharretts.

It appears that Dr. David Phillips operated from his apartment.  In the early hours of January 26 he was awakened by a messenger boy who said he was needed on West 16th Street.   Augustus Phillips (no relation) had been living with a woman named Mary Hoopley in rooms on the third floor of No. 142 West 16th Street for six weeks.  They were known to the other roomers as Mr. and Mrs. Phillips.  The couple went to the theater with a friend on January 25.  The three returned to the apartment and the unnamed friend left around 2:30 in the morning.  The Buffalo Morning Express reported "Soon after his departure, the sound of an angry quarrel was heard throughout the house."

At 3:40 Mary wakened Dr. Quinlan, who lived on the first floor shouting "For God's sake come up stairs; Gus is shot."  When the doctor entered the room, Phillips said "Well, Doc, I've got it this time," to which Mary replied "Yes, indeed, and I only wish I'd finished you."

Dr. Phillips arrived and the two physicians worked on their patient until 9:00 when they left him alone with Mary, "partly quieted by morphine."  Astoundingly, the fight renewed.  Sounds of a fight were heard at 9:30 and neighbors rushed in.  "Phillips was found sitting in a chair weak from exertion.  His companion, bruised and beaten, lay on the floor."  Phillips claimed that Mary attacked him with a poker while he lay in bed; Mary insisted he had "jumped from the bed, felled her with blows with his fist, and then trampled upon her."  Both were removed to the hospital.

Dr. Phillips was again summoned by another physician in 1880.  This time Dr. John W. Gibbs found his wife, Mary, suffering from "narcotic poisoning."   She had been enduring an ongoing illness and small doses of morphine were given to her by her husband.  The two doctors were able to save the woman's life; and then an investigation was launched to discover how the overdose happened.   Mrs. Gibbs's morphine pills were found in the purse of a 22-year old Irish servant girl, Jane Rigney.   In court she denied having tried to poison Mrs. Gibbs, saying her only crime was theft.  The "only things I stole from the house were the gold watch, chain, and locket, and the silk dresses."

Augustine Butler, who listed himself as a clerk in 1879, branched out into the arts in 1881.   On January 8, 1881 The Sun reported "Mr. Augustine F. Butler, who resides at 203 West Fourteenth street, has written a new play, entitled "The Heir of Greylock," and it was produced last evening, with the aid of a gifted company, at the Union League Theatre."  The critic found Butler's detailed depiction of the British upper crust admirable.  "There is a touch of distinct vulgarity in the dialogue, which affords a pleasant proof of the author's unswerving fidelity to his chosen model, and shows, in a light and pleasant way, that such titled persons do not hesitate to use familiar English idioms when so minded."

By now Captain Baby was also president of the Board of Life-Saving Appliances.  The group examined new inventions to determine their possible use by the city.  On November 16, 1882, for instance, it saw a demonstration of "Mitchell's life-saving car."  Actually a type of lifeboat, The New York Times said it "consists of a boat of canvass in a frame of iron.  The bottom is of double, and the top of single, canvas, and an opening at the top admits the passengers.  It is claimed by the inventor that this car will ride the surf and land safely on any beach."

Captain Francis R. Baby died in the house on March 19, 1888 at the age of 64.   The New York Times noted that he "had been for many years prominent in maritime circles here and had many friends."  His funeral was held in the house two days later.

As the century drew to a close the ground floor space was home to Yee Sing's laundry.   In 1898 a rash of burglaries targeting Chinese laundries confounded the police.  Yee Sing left his business to make a delivery on the afternoon of November 20 and returned only to find his till had been emptied.  Later that night, according to The Sun, "Two excited men rushed up to Policeman Kahn...and told him that there was a Chinaman gone crazy in the laundry of Low Yen at 144 East Fifteenth street.  They based their assertion on the fact that they had seen him hacking at the money drawer with a hatchet."

As Officer Kahn entered the laundry, the man dropped his hatchet and disappeared through a rear door which he locked behind him.   The policeman gained entrance to the rear yards through the house next door, and "a pretty hurdle race ensued" as the burglar climbed fences followed closely behind by the cop.   The crook was slowed first when his shoe became caught on a fence nail.   He shook his foot loose of the shoe to escape, but was caught hiding behind a cistern in the yard.  During the struggle that followed he lost his other shoe.  "When Kahn conducted his barefooted captive to the East Twenty-second street station, he was followed by a crowd of fully 500 people."  

At the station house Captain Hasslacher said he felt Jim Sang was the perpetrator of the burglary of Low Yen's laundry, as well as so many others in the past three months.

The two corner houses still hint at their former appearance.

Among the residents of No. 203 at the time was a vaudeville entertainer,  Emma Francis, and her mother.  Emma was described by The Sunday Telegraph as "a limber soubrette."   She was appearing in an act "A Hot Old Time" at Keith's Theatre and the newspaper called her work "of dubious value," saying she did "some acrobatic work which would have been clever were it not for the stern fact that it wasn't."

In February 1899 William Johnston arrived in New York from England.  He was half of an acrobatic bicycle riding team which was also booked at Keith's.  Johnston became smitten with Emma and they began seeing one another.  The Sunday Telegraph reported on July 29, 1900 "he began making her presents, it being generally considered they were going to be married."  Emma, however, was less interested in marriage than in expensive gifts.

His gifts ranged from "diamonds, clothing, hats, stage dresses, foods liquids, [and] umbrellas," said the article.  He added "I would have bought her lingerie too, if she had told me she needed it."  When he proposed marriage, she lead him on, saying "he would have to wait on her for a year."  And so he did.

When the year had passed, he proposed again.  Her response was "that she wouldn't marry the finest Englishman that ever walked in shoe leather."  She had confided earlier to a cousin that she had never had any intention to marry him.  The Sunday Telegraph said "To say the least Mr. Johnston was miffed.  He promptly demanded that she return the things he had lent her."  When she refused the two paired off in court.  Johnston told the judge "It took me a whole year to find out that the limber soubrette handled me for a good thing."

The janitor of the building, John Bain, lived in a basement apartment with his family.  He and his wife, Helen, had two children in 1908, 7-year old Nora and 10-year old John.  Helen devised a nefarious way to add to the household income.

On September 20, 1908 The New York Times reported "The police say Mrs. Bain is a female Fagin."  On the evening before she and the children were arrested, "the woman charged with improper guardianship of the children, and John, the older child, charged with petit larceny."  Helen had taken the children into a Broadway department store that afternoon.  A store detective watched as she looked over the merchandise.  She would move a particular item to the edge of the counter, them move away, blocking the view of the clerks while John slipped the article into his shirt.  They repeated the operation from floor to floor, unaware that they were being trailed by the detective.

Whenever a clerk would notice what John was doing, Helen would "shake him soundly and replace the article, as though scolding the child for meddling."  And then they would resume the ruse.  On the sidewalk outside Helen was stopped by two house detectives.  In the boy's shirt were nearly ten stolen items.

"At the station house the woman blamed the whole affair on the boy, declaring that she did not know he was stealing...The boy, with many interpellations from his mother, told a similar story."  Helen was locked up and the children sent to the Children's Society awaiting an appearance in Children's Court.

An advertisement on March 30, 1916 described a "very desirable apartment, 8 rooms, 3 baths, size 25 x 100; steam heat, hot water, and electric light."  The $70 rent would equal about $1,680 today.  Among the residents the following year were architect William G. Boyd.  

The ground floor was home to a restaurant which became victim of an armed robbery that year.  On January 8, 1917 The Evening Telegram reported "With drawn revolvers, two men entered a restaurant in No. 203 West Fourteenth street, to-day, robbed the cash register of $44 and fled from the place after overpower one of the proprietors who attempted to grapple with them."  The robbers did not get far.  They were arrested outside the restaurant by an alert street cop.

The building, around 1941, still had its architrave window frames.  via the NYC Department of Records & Information Services

In 1921 the Andriano family lived here.  Anna Andriano was 18-years old that year and was suffering from a broken heart.  On October 6 she swallowed iodine in the women's lavatory in the Union Square subway station.  The Daily News reported "Thanks to the prompt administration of milk and eggs by Patrolman Behan, it was hoped in St. Vincent's Hospital yesterday that she will recover."  The newspaper said she had attempted suicide "owing, it is believed, to a love disappointment."

Astoundingly, 19th century interior elements, like this marble mantel and pier mirror, survive in some of the large apartments.  via

Throughout the 20th century the once elegant home suffered abuse.  The front of the two-story commercial space was was remodeled repeatedly, not always attractively.  And although the Victorian details have mostly been lost on the upper facade, the cornice and shingled mansard survive along with the delicate cast iron cresting on the rooftop. 


photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Brendan Byrnes for requesting this post

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