Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The James Baldwin Residence -- 81 Horatio Street


photo via sotheby'

In the 1830's brick homes were being built along Horatio Street (named for Revolutionary commander General Horatio Gates) in Greenwich Village.  But the proximity to the Hudson River docks made Nos. 79 and 81 Horatio Street a convenient site for a much less attractive group of structures, described in an advertisement in the New York Herald in 1865 as "a Coal Yard, brick Stables and Office."  The operation was most likely an annoyance to the families in the prim houses around it.

In 1869 developer James Gilmore purchased the 47-foot wide property and hired William Grant to design two mirror image structures.  His choice is interesting, since Grant, too, was known as a real estate operator and developer and not as an architect.  At four stories above brownstone English basements, the buildings were noticeably taller their their earlier neighbors.  Faced in red brick they featured molded lintels and handsome bracketed Italianate cornices.

On June 3, 1870 James Gilmore sold No. 81 to Morris Littman for $18,000--about $364,000 today.  Like Gilmore, Littman was a real estate operator and the purchase was an investment.  He immediately operated it as a rooming house, most families occupying a full floor of six rooms.

Among his initial tenants were Owen and Elizabeth Darrigan.  It seems that Elizabeth was already sick when they moved in.  She died in their rooms on August 30, 1871 "after a protracted illness," at the age of 52.  As would be expected, her funeral was held in the apartment two days later.

Littman did not retain ownership of the property especially long.  On March 15, 1873 he placed an ad in the New York Herald that read "For Sale, a First Class Tenement House...Apply to M. Littman."   It was sold to yet another operator, Richard Keys.

Among his tenants was Timothy Caston who suffered a horrific accident on November 22, 1875.  As the Eighth Avenue streetcar approached Horatio Street, he may have attempted to jump off while it was still moving.  He was pulled under and "dragged for some distance," according to the New-York Daily Tribune.  Two ribs were broken and he sustained internal injuries.  The newspaper said flatly that his injuries "probably will result fatally."

The gritty environment of the riverfront docks nearby created street-tough youths, at least one of whom lived with his family at No. 81.   Samuel Tere appeared in the Washington Place Police Court on July 14, 1876 "committed to answer for shooting Thomas Murray," as reported by The New York Times.  He would be back four months later.

On November 3, 1876 23-year old John J. Mead, a Deputy United States Marshal, was leaning against a railing at the corner of Bleecker and Jones Street.  Samuel Tere came running by and tripped on Mead's foot.  The 19-year old picked himself up and, assuming that Mead had tripped him on purpose, stabbed him in the left shoulder and on the side of his head.

The Keys family sold No. 81 to John F. Cordes and his wife, Anna, on September 22, 1891 for $13,000 (around $377,000 today).  Unlike the previous owners, the couple, who had two sons, moved into the building their tenants.

It appears that John Cordes made some extra money by allowing his name to be used as a testimonial in 1894.  Dr. W. H. Copeland ran The Copeland Medical Institute on West 24th Street and on November 15 that year placed a quarter-page advertisement disguised as a news article in The Press.  Copeland and his partner, Dr. E. E. Gardner claimed that they had a cure for catarrh (a sinus condition), widely considered to be incurable.  The article said in part "Capt. Cordes, No. 81 Horatio, st., [was] cured of catarrh of the head and throat."

The following year F. J. Cordes was old enough to look for a job.  His ad read:  "Boy, not afraid of work, would like a position in some wholesale house; can give best references and furnish bonds, if needed."  In 1896 his brother was searching for employment.  His ad said "A young man (19), good penman, desires position in wholesale house or office...wages no object.  H. Cordes, 81 Horatio st."  Finding a job may have been easier for him than keeping one.  The identical ad appeared again in 1897 and in 1898.

The tenants in the first years of the 20th century were mostly immigrant, working class families.  Among them was the family of Cornelius Sullivan who came from Kilgaroon, County Kerry, Ireland.  They suffered a loss in 1904 when Daniel Sullivan died "suddenly" on November 10.   

Cornelius Sullivan was a relatively young man who made his living as a steam engineer.  But he was seen on the Hudson River pier at 42nd Street at 5:00 on the afternoon of June 27, 1911 disoriented and confused.  Passersby notified a policeman of a "big man seated on a stringpiece [the heavy squared timber forming the dock front] going over a lot of papers.  Beside him lay several bank books, a memorandum book, some silver and paper money."  He was taken to the East 35th Street police station.  The New York Times reported "The man couldn't remember his name or what he was doing at the pier.  To all questions he answered, 'I don't know' or 'I don't remember."  Luckily, in the memorandum book was written "Cornelius Sullivan, age 47, occupation steam engineer.  Address, 81 Horatio Street."  He was taken to Bellevue Hospital.

The Gerschen family lived in the house at the same time.  Like the daughters of most immigrant families, Bertha Gerschen had gone to work as soon as she entered her teens.  She found a job as a machine operator in the Kisch Manufacturing Company on Broadway.  She had worked there several years when she left home for work on December 21, 1910.  This time she would not come back.

Bertha several years earlier.  The Evening World, December 21, 1910 (copyright expired)

Bertha took a big square of chocolate about an inch and a half thick with her that day.  At lunchtime she opened its white box and showed it to her co-workers.  The World reported "several girls crowded around asking some of it.  Bertha was willing to share the dainty, but it was hard and she could not break it with her fingers."

And so Bertha sat down with the chocolate block on her lap and began stabbing at it with a 7-inch pair of shears.  Finally one of the blades punched through, but she used such force that it "pierced her skirt and punctured her leg."  The shears severed an artery.  "With a scream the girl jumped to her feet and ran the length of the factory to a retiring room."  An ambulance was called and the foreman, Walter Finn, attempted to apply a tourniquet.  But the 18-year old refused to allow him to raise her skirts.

Finally, when the blood loss made her faint, her skirt was raised and a tourniquet applied.  But it was too late.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported "she was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital, where she died a short time after being admitted."  The newspaper added "Her death was due solely to her modesty."

As had been the case with Samuel Tere, other teens in the building continued to attract press attention for their crimes.   Timothy Shea was 18-years old and on parole in June 1919 when he was arrested again.  The Evening World reported that the arresting officer said he "was one of three youths he saw holding up an unidentified man in Horatio Street on May 16."

No. 81 was updated in 1928 by architect Edward Baresel.  Now officially termed a "tenement house" by the Department of Buildings, among his renovations were the removal of the cornice and stoop.  

The updating moved the entrance to the former basement level.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Living here in 1932 was the handsome refrigerator salesman, Lionel Southard.   It was perhaps a bit shocking to some that the woman he lived with was not his wife.  But more details were still to come.  In 1924 he had been convicted of bigamy and served four months in the County Jail.  Now he was back to his old habits.

The dapper Lionel Southard had a total of four wives and a lover.  The Daily News, October 22, 1932.

On July 15, 1925 he married Mary Southard.  And then on October 24, 1930 he married Gertrude Gunn Southard (they had one child together).  With two wives, one in Brooklyn and the other in the Bronx, he did not bother with the formality of marriage with his Horatio Street sweetheart.  But Mary and Gertrude found out about one another and had him arrested in October 1932.  "Leonard explained there had been at least two Mrs. Southards before, making a total of four."  The 32-year old was held without bail pending a hearing on October 25.  

In 1942 an advertisement appeared in the New York Post offering an apartment of "2 rooms and separate kitchen, $45.  Modern equip, refrigeration, fireplace, ample closets."  The rent would be equal to about $700 per month today.

Among the tenants that year was 57-year old Bernard J. Meyer, a paper manufacturer.  Sometime after midnight on Sunday morning March 22 he and a friend, 48-year old William L. Barnes were on Eighth Avenue at Jane Street.  They had been drinking and according  the New York Post they were "singing lustily."  Their vocal talents did not amuse two longshoremen and a confrontation ensued.  In the end both Meyer and Barnes were dead--Meyer stabbed 18 times and Barnes knocked to the pavement causing a fractured skull.

In December 1957 James Baldwin signed a lease and, after his first trip to the South, moved into an apartment in April 1958.  The author remained here until 1961, working on his third novel Another Country here.

James Baldwin from the collection of the Library of Congress

Also living in the building was writer Sam Floyd, Baldwin's best friend.   The two held gatherings of friends who would later be as well-known as themselves.  Jessica B. Harris, in her 2017 book My Soul Looks Back, recalls that like Baldwin's,  "Sam's apartment was also special and reserved for intimates who passed muster and could hold their own with his rapier-sharp tongue."  She told interviewer Dayna Evans from The Cut:

I was in Sam's apartment at 81 Horatio Street (or, as I call it in the book, "Club 81") with Stokely Carmichael, I was in there with James Baldwin on more than one occasion, I was in there with Martina Arroyo.  Louise Meriwether was there.  Mary Painter was there.  Sam did much of the cooking.  He ruled his domain.  He did roast goose, he made turnip greens with the turnips in them.

James Baldwin left No. 81 Horatio Street in 1961.  Sam Floyd later became one of the thousands of victims of the AIDS epidemic.

A renovation in 2003 replaced the brownstone stoop and recreated the cornice, based on the surviving example next door.  A subsequent renovation completed in 2013 by Daniel Romualdez Architects resulted in two residences, a duplex on the lower level and a triplex above.

The luxurious interiors would stagger the original residents.  photo via

In October 2015 a plaque was affixed to the facade documenting James Baldwin's residency.  

many thanks to reader Ted Leather for suggesting this post

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