Friday, December 11, 2020

The Charles M. Oakley House - 19 Bethune Street


In 1836 a group of builders and carpenters partnered to erect a row of six speculative houses on Bethune Street between Greenwich and Washington Streets.  Completed the following year, the Greek Revival style homes were faced in red brick and trimmed in brownstone.  The peaked roof and dormers of the slightly earlier Federal Style were replaced by a shallow attic level with squat windows peaking through the fascia board.

The owners of No. 7 (later renumbered 19) took in at least one boarder.  John C. Sterling, who lived in Jefferson County, New York, lived with the family in 1840 while he attended New York University.

The 22-foot wide house was sold at auction in February 1845.  The announcement described it as a "modern brick House" with "marble mantels, black [fireplace] grates, counter cellar--spring and rain water, pump on premises."  The mention of a private pump was an attractive convenience.  Many of the Greenwich Village residents relied on community pumps.

John Fernon moved into the house.   His profession was a "carman," or a driver of a delivery vehicle.  Carmen were often employed by railways for local deliveries.   Fernon and his family remained in the house for at least fifteen years, always taking in other carmen--normally two at a time--as boarders.

In 1863 No. 7 was home to Philip B. Marsh, who operated a hat store at No. 32 Duane Street, and his wife, Matilda L. Marsh.  The couple suffered heartbreak on February 14 that year when their infant son, Augustus, died.  His funeral was held in the parlor the following afternoon.

Charles M. Oakley, a carpenter, purchased No. 7 around 1867.  Like his predecessors, he took in a few boarder and that year policeman Charles W. Caffrey lived with the family.  He moved to Greenwich Street in 1869, and carpenter George Colver took his rooms.

Charles W. Caffrey had attained the rank of captain in the Police Department by 1872.  He was forced to appear before the Police Board for violating a General Order that year.  On Sunday, June 23, he and several other captains had allowed "processions to form and march with music through their precincts, to take part in a church dedication."

In the meantime, the Hubbs family were living with the Oakleys.  Isaac G. Hubbs listed his profession as "agent," and Edwin A. Hubbs was a director of the Institute of Reward for Orphans and Patriots.  Isaac died two days after Christmas in 1872, at the age of 60.  

The Oakleys continued to have a turnover of boarders, like Emma J. Hirst, who taught in Primary School No. 24 on Horatio Street.  She boarded for at least two years, between 1874 and 1876.  Then, in 1878, Charles W. Caffrey and his family returned.

By now Caffrey's son, Warren, was old enough to have his own profession as a clerk.  The family would remain with the Oakley's for years.  

What appear to be stubby newels are in fact the base of cast iron gas lampposts.  A few other examples survive along the row, these having been given Italianate caps at some point in the 19th century.

Charles was earning $2,000 per year as a police captain in 1881, around $52,000 in today's money.  So when he and Officer Edward Moran were sued for $5,000 damages by George W. Lake in January that year, it was a serious issue.   Lake was an importer of Chinese and Japanese goods.  

The parties appeared in court on January 11, The Evening Post saying "A case peculiar in its nature was begun this morning before Judge Van Vorat."  It had all begun years earlier, on June 11, 1878.  Moran was called to a house on State Street "to prevent a young woman named Nettie Lake from committing suicide by jumping from a window," according to The New York Times.  After the crisis was over, Nettie identified Lake as her husband.

The newspaper reported "Lake was found by the Police, but he denied that he was Nettie's husband, refused to take care of her, and told the Police to 'let her jump.'"  The story became even more shocking when investigation revealed that Lake was not Nettie's husband, but her father, and that her two children were also fathered by him.  Lake was arrested, but in court Nettie refused to testify against him and "both charges against him fell to the ground."

Now Lake sued for "false arrest and malicious prosecution," saying there was no reasonable cause.  The defense argued that "at the time of his arrest there were reasonable grounds for believing him guilty of the crime with which he was charged."  Lake's testimony during the four-day trial no doubt shocked the Victorian jury.  He said that Nettie was the illegitimate daughter of a Mrs. Gunnison, that he had taken her from her mother when she was 14 years old, and that he had posed as her father.  He also admitted to fathering one of her children.

The jury felt legally compelled to find Caffrey and Moran guilty.  They awarded Lake six cents in damages.

Charles W. Caffrey was forced to retire from the Police Department in June 1887 after 20 years service.  Department rules insisted that retirement was mandatory after the age of 60.

At the time Bethune Street ran from the Hudson River to Greenwich Street.  Charles Oakley was among the residents who signed a petition in February that year to have the street extended to Hudson Street.  The petition said in part "If extended to Hudson street, which as this point forms part of Abingdon Square, it will open into a large and commodious plaza and the means of ingress thereto and egress therefrom will be greatly enlarged."  The city agreed and the project was completed in 1892, giving the Oakley house the new address of No. 19.

After more than three decades in the house, Oakley sold it on November 24, 1897 to Joseph Haight, who paid $11,500.  The price would equal about $366,000 today.

The house changed hands again on August 7, 1901 when Haight transferred title to George H. Foster and his wife, Margaret L.  The couple remained until around 1913 when Annie Bremen purchased it.  Annie apparently had inherited money, because the income she received from her deceased husband's police pension ($300 per year) was the equivalent of just $6,000 today.  Her daughter, Florence M. Bremen, added to the household income when she took a position as a statistical clerk for the New York Supreme Court by 1924.

Actor and playwright Daniel Reed and his wife, publicity agent Isadora Bennett, lived briefly at No. 19 in the late 1920's. He published Goodbye in the Morning on September 23, 1930.

Geoffrey Pope was 24 years old in 1936 and a bookkeeper at Macfadden Publications, where he had worked for three years.  He and another bookkeeper there, Sheldon Taylor (who coincidentally was also 24 years old) talked about the excitement of adventure and the boredom of bookkeeping.  The two saved up $1,000 and, after four months of planning, resigned their jobs on April 21, 1936 and set off on an exploit.

On April 26 The New York Times reported "Paddles digging deep, two young adventurers pushed off in a seventeen-foot canoe from the foot of West Forty-second Street yesterday morning, bound for Nome, Alaska, by way in inland waters."  They shoved off at 10:20 that morning after the tide had turned.  Onlookers yelled "Give my regards to the Eskimos" and "See you in two years!"

By 1938 No. 19 was home to Frederick and Elsie Buchholz and their daughter, Dorothea Buchholz.  Frederick, known as Fred, was the secretary of the Society of Independent Artists, which used the house as its de facto headquarters.   It was most likely the Buchholzes who added the art studio on the roof.

Dorothea followed in the arts and by 1953 was an instructor at the Dance Education Center at No. 68 Fifth Avenue.  The family was listed in the Bethune Street house through 1959.

The tradition of the arts at No. 19 continued in the 1960's with the family of Harry Ulanov.  When the engagement of daughter Anne to Alfred M. Pietrasanta was announced in October 1965, The New York Times mentioned that she was "a granddaughter of the late Norman Bel Geddes, the designer and theatrical producer."

Original Greek Revival detailing like the beautifully veined mantel and woodwork survive in some rooms.  photo via

Other than its long history of housing boarders, No. 19 was never altered into apartments.  While expected interior updating has been done, much of the 1837 Greek Revival detailing survives.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. When I saw the name Bel Geddes I remembered that the actress who played JR's mother on the TV Show Dallas (Miss Ellie) was Barbara Bel Geddes. Indeed Miss Ellie was the daughter of Norman Bel Geddes. Wikipedia reports that her sister was Joan Bel Geddes Ulanov. Author Joan Ulanov was married to Barry Ulanov editorial director of Swing Magazine according to her wedding announcement from 1939. Anne must have been her daughter.