Friday, November 20, 2020

The 1853 Andrew L. Vanvaler House - 142 East 30th Street


In 1853 builder and developer Thomas Kilpatrick erected the three-story house at No. 100 East 30th Street (renumbered 142 in 1868).  The 25-foot wide Anglo-Italianate residence featured a covered, full-width cast iron balcony at the floor.  Unusual for New York City, it smacked of the ornate iron porches of Nos. 3 and 4 Gramercy Park, most likely designed by esteemed architect Alexander Jackson Davis a few years earlier.  

There were two entrances, explained by The Buffalo Commercial decades later on May 7, 1908.  It said that Kilpatrick had produced "the first flat-house in what is now Greater New York."  In fact, it was less a "flat house," by today's terms, than a "double."  The owner would have the advantage of rental income from other half.  In the rear was a two-story carriage house which would be described in 1872 as having "room for three horses and three carriages."

The newly-completed house was purchased by Andrew L. Vanvaler, who dealt in mahogany and also ran a hoople factory.  Hooples were the current fad in children's toys--the 1850's equivalent of hula hoops or skateboards.  A hoople was a large wooden hoop which a child rolled down a sidewalk by pushing it with a flat wooden stick.  The farther the hoop traveled without falling over, the more successful its owner.

A girl with her rolling hoop, or hoople, and stick.

The other side of the house was occupied by the Coffin family.  Both Edward and William H. Coffin listed their professions as "clerk."  The Coffins moved out in 1862.  Prior to their leaving they placed a detailed advertisement in the New York Herald seeking "Part of a House wanted--By a family of three persons only, in a quiet and respectable neighborhood, on the east side of the city, between Thirtieth and Fiftieth streets; a basement kitchen in connection with other apartments [i.e. rooms] would be required."

By 1867 William S. Wait moved his family in.  He apparently was continuously seeking new business opportunities.  That year he ran a stables on Fourth Avenue.  By 1870 when the family of George N. Sanders took the second part of the house, Wait was also running two coffin stores, one on the Bowery and another on Christie Street.

George N. Sanders was apparently retired by now.  His son, George, Jr. was an attorney with an office at No. 9 Broad Street.

William S. Wait remained at No. 142 through 1880.  By now his stable business had expanded to three locations.  The following year John W. Martin moved in.  An officer in the Court of Common Pleas, he earned a yearly salary of $1,200--about $31,000 in today's money.  The Martins would remain in the house until 1895.  

On the other side lived the family of Charles R. Cuyler.  In the fall of 1887 he and other local residents were irate over a nearby brothel.  The Maison Tortoni, run by "a French madam known as Madam Chaude," was just feet away at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 30th Street.  In 1887 Cuyler added his name to a petition against granting the “hotel” a liquor license.

The petition explained to officials that the Maison Tortoni was not at all a restaurant nor hotel, but “is in fact principally for the purpose of assignation and acts of the grossest immorality and licentiousness, and these acts are practiced nightly in this house, which is provided with separate wine-rooms, each of which is supplied with a bed, and where wines and liquors are served to the men and women frequenting the place.”  The family's indignation was further explained by Frank Cuyler's position as a Sexton of the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The building was purchased in 1895 by Dr. George W. Thompson.  He was highly involved in the local Democratic party when not practicing medicine.

On September 16, 1896 he was called to a case far to the north on East 142nd Street at the home of a midwife, Mrs. C. Becker.  There "a young Danish woman, known only as Miss Smith," was in seriously condition.  The Sun reported "When he reached there he found the girl dying.  He at once went to a drug store and telephoned to the Coroner's office for a Coroner to take the girl's ante mortem statement."  (An ante mortem statement was legally necessary to charge the person responsible for the girl's injuries.)  

She told Dr. Thompson she had been injured by falling from a bicycle.  In fact, as Thompson no doubt readily discerned, she was suffering from a botched abortion.  He later said "she was very stubborn, and would tell absolutely nothing about herself or her friends."

When he returned to the house from the drugstore, he found that Mrs. Becker had ordered her horse and carriage brought around and had fled.  The girl died about two hours after Thompson arrived.  Police now wanted to find Mrs. Becker, "whom they consider responsible for the girl's death," and "the man responsible for the girl's condition."

In June 1899 Dr. Thompson was called to what The Sun deemed a "queer case of poisoning."  Harvey Moshier ran a trunk and bag store at No. 408 Third Avenue.  He and wife of just seven months, Pauline, lived above the store.  While they were visiting Moshier's mother upstate on Sunday, June 25 Pauline became ill.  The following morning she complained of heart pains.

On Tuesday afternoon a neighbor heard her moaning and found her with severe pain around the heart.  "I wish my husband were here," she said.  A few minutes later she fell unconscious and Dr. Thompson was called.  As he treated her, the 35 year old woman died.  The Sun reported "Being unable to obtain a history of the case he diagnosed it as cerebral apoplexy [i.e., a stroke]."  But there was something more sinister going on.

Coroner O'Hanlon determined that she had died of carbolic acid poisoning.  The Sun said that he was "of course, unable to determine whether the poison was taken with suicidal intent or not."  Nevertheless, no one expected that a suicidal woman would draw the painful process out over a three-day period.  Harvey Moshier quickly attempted to deflect suspicion.  The Sun reported he "scouts the suggestion that his wife committed suicide."  He told police that in the seven months of their marriage "they never had a quarrel."

The Thompson family retained possession of the house for years.  Their daughter, Ethel, received her teaching certificate from Normal College in 1901.  In December 1916 Dr. Thompson hired the well-known architectural firm of James B. Snook Sons to renovate the carriage house to a garage.

In September 1919 Dr. Thompson purchased the house just steps away at No. 136 East 30th Street and sold his home of a quarter of a century.  It continued to house two families at a time until 1930 when it was converted by the architectural firm of Scott & Prescott for its offices.  The rear building was now described by the Department of Buildings as a "tenement."

Scott & Prescott was a partnership of William O. Prescott and David Cairns Scott.  During World War I the firm had received government commissions to design the Army Hospital "for shell-shock patients," the remodeling of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Club of New York, the recreation building for the Navy Aviation Camp at Montauk Point, and the Navy Post Office.

Scott & Prescott remained for just over a decade, selling the property in 1941 to "an investor."  In 1945 the Gallery of Jewish Art opened in the building with an exhibition of paintings by Chagall entitled "Synagogues."  The gallery remained at least through 1947.

The house was little changed from the outside when Scott & Prescott operated here.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

In 1955 photographer Mark Shaw renovated the building, creating a "photo workroom" on the ground floor and a single family house above.  The carriage house was converted to a photographic studio.  Shaw is best known as the White House photographer for President John F. Kennedy. 

In announcing Shaw's death on January 28, 1969, The New York Times remarked "After President Kennedy's assassination, Mr. Shaw turned to filming commercials for television.  He maintained a large studio, known as Mark Shaw International, in the townhouse at 142 East 30th Street."

Thomas Kilpatrick's "first flat house" is as charming today as it was in 1853--a delightful discovery on a Kips Bay side street.

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