Saturday, November 28, 2020

The William G. Sutherland House - 331 West 18th Street


Born in February 1776, William G. Sutherland made his living as a shoemaker.  By the first years of the 1850's he was successful enough to purchase the fine three-story brick home at No. 221 West 18th Street (renumbered 331 in 1868) in the developing Chelsea neighborhood.  The 23-foot wide home featured the expected elements of the Greek Revival style like the Doric brownstone pilasters which upheld the heavy entablature.

By 1853 Sutherland had retired.  His sons, William and James who ran a fruit business downtown on Front Street, also lived in the house.  A daughter, Margaret, had married Matthew Winters in 1821.   

In 1862 it appears that James moved out.  His name disappeared from the directories that year and a boarder, broker Edmund J. Wade, took his place.   That same year, on March 3, William G. Sutherland died while at Rockland Lake, New York at the age of 85.  William Jr. remained in the house until 1867 when he moved to West 21st Street.  He sold the 18th Street house to Joseph M. Schute and his wife, Mary.

Schute was a well-do-to entrepreneur who ran two separate but related businesses.  A builder, his office was at was No. 387 West 18th Street.  He also operated a pipe business at No. 417 West 18th Street.  It was most likely Schute who updated the house by adding Italianate details.  The parlor windows were extended to the floor and pressed metal lintels were added to the openings.

Living with Mary and Joseph was their second son, John A. Schute.  He died at the age of 27 on January 9, 1874.  As was the custom, his casket sat in the parlor until his funeral which was held there four days later.  A member of the family would have sat vigil day and the night at by the casket--the ritual known as a wake.

Not long afterward the Schutes sold the house to carriage maker Frederick R. Wood and his wife, Mary.   Wood had founded F. R. Wood in 1848.  The house was conveniently located near his carriage factory at Nos. 219-221 West 19th Street.

The firm had been renamed F. R. Wood & Son by 1888.  Rather than manufacturing elegant carriages and buggies, it focused on more industrial vehicles.  The July 1, 1888 issue of The Hub noted "They are making mostly light delivery wagons and are doing a good share of repair work."

On March 12, 1893 Frederick and Mary announced the engagement of their daughter Blanche Estelle to Daniel Kirk Valentine.  Although the wedding was scheduled for the following month, for some reason it did not happen until January 15, 1895.

The Woods sold No. 331 for $18,000 in October that year to Philip G. Becker.  The sale price would be equal to about $565,000 today.  

An interesting side story is that shortly after selling the house Frederick Wood's firm became involved with electric delivery vehicles and "invalid coaches."  In 1900 it was no longer listed as a carriage maker, but as an "electric motor vehicle manufacturer."  It built the first electric ambulance in America in 1901.

It appears No. 311 was being operated as a boarding house in the pre-World War I years.  It was home to Peter Vingel, who made his living as a street car conductor in 1916 during a vicious labor dispute.  Strikes often involved violence, especially when management dug in against the union demands.  On September 13 The Evening World ran a front page banner headline that read "FIGHT UNION TO THE LAST, TRACTION HEADS DECIDE."  The article reported that all the street railroad companies had banded together against the unions.

The tension caused problems for the workers like Vingel who remained on the job.  A separate front page article was entitled "500 Men And Boys Attack Car Crew On Fourth Avenue" and told of the mob that tried "to pull motormen and conductors from surface cars."  A "pitched battle between police and strikers" near Madison Square broke out as the streetcar employees were attacked.  Peter Vingel was among the targets, but he managed not to be wrested off the platform of his car at 23rd Street and Madison before being rescued by police.

Following the First World War most of the once upscale homes on the block were converted to rooming houses or apartments.  Change came to No. 331 in 1924.  On September 18 the New York Telegram and Evening Mail reported "The Margaret and Sarah Switzer Foundation for Girls purchased from Mary Coleman the three-story house at No. 331 West Eighteenth street."  

Sisters Margaret and Sarah Switzer had arrived from Ireland in the 19th century.  They found work as seamstresses and, according to a report in 1911, "reached the head of their profession, the dressmaking profession, and they made a fortune."  The women used their money for the benefit of working women.  After Margaret died, Sarah pushed forward with their vision.  In 1911 she built the Margaret and Sarah Switzer Institute and Home for Girls at Christopher Street and Waverly Place.

Sarah Switzer died on February 27, 1920, but the institute went on.   The Hospital Social Service noted in 1924 "The Margaret and Sarah Switzer Foundation for Girls has opened a New York City office at 331 West 18th Street."

It is unclear how long the Institute remained in the house; but by 1957 it was home to an even more unexpected tenant.  On April 2, 1957 an Associated Press article reported on the arrival of Betsy, "the nation's No. 1 fingerpainting chimpanzee," in the city.  The article said "On arrival in New York, Betsy and her entourage, motored to an exclusive 17-room animal hostel (Animal Talent Scout Shelter, 331 West 18th St.) where Betsy was shown to a room with private bath."

The Animal Talent Scout Shelter was run by Lorrain and Bernie D'Essen.  They acted as casting agents for non-human performers for television, motion pictures, operas, plays and advertisements.  The couple boasted they could book anything "from a mosquito to an elephant."

The presence of the Animal Talent Scout Shelter must have been a constant source of comment for the neighbors.  On November 7, 1970 The New York Times noted "The menagerie from time to time has had lions, llamas, kangaroos and timber wolves, along with a score or more of dogs, cats and deer."

The survival of the Sutherland house may be endangered.  An application to replace the building with a new structure in June 2017 was disapproved; however new plans were filed in November 2019.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. You would think either the Historic Districts Council, NYC Preservation League, various Chelsea Community groups or the NYC Landmarks Commission would have an interest in saving this well preserved 170 year old townhouse that has a considerable impact on the local streetscape.