Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The William MacKenzie House - 432 West 22nd Street


Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest constructed three speculative homes at Nos. 430 
through 434 West 22nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in 1843.  He most likely worked in partnership with James Phelan, who simultaneously erected three essentially identical houses at Nos. 424 through 428.  Faced in red brick and sitting upon brownstone English basements, each of the houses rose three floors.  Their entrances were typical of the Greek Revival style--Doric pilasters upholding a beefy, corniced entablature.  The openings were trimmed in brownstone and capped with molded lintels, and a simple cornice unified the row.

In 1854 the owners of the recently redecorated No. 292 West 22nd Street (renumbered 432 in 1863) had extra space in their 19-foot wide house.  Their advertisement in the New York Morning Courier read:

Board--Two or three single gentlemen, or a gentleman and his wife can be accommodated with very pleasant rooms, with board, at No. 292, West 22d street; between 9th and 10th avenues, accessible by cars and stages.  House contains all the modern improvements, and location very pleasant.

Publisher John Bigelow leased the house for a year, from 1856 to 1857.  Born in 1817 he had already had a fascinating career.  In 1845 he was appointed inspector of Sing Sing Prison where he instituted penal reform.  William Cullen Bryant brought him in as partial owner and editor of the New York Evening Post in 1848.  Just prior to moving into the 22nd Street house he had broken from the Democratic Party because of its pro-slavery stance.  Later, Abraham Lincoln would appoint him consul general in Paris.

Following the Bigelows, John Wade and his family moved in.  He was a partner with George Wade in the flour and commission firm of Wade & Brother on Broad Street.  

At the end of the Wades' lease, in January 1858, the house was offered for sale.  The advertisement in the New York Daily Herald touted "all the modern improvements."

It became home to the family of attorney William MacKenzie.  Moving in with the family was MacKenzie's sister-in-law, Mary Cameron Fraser, the widow of Rev. Alexander Fraser. 

In 1877 James Cameron MacKenzie entered New York City College.  He was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Dr. James Cameron.   Upon his graduation he would become a well-known physician in the district.

A brother in-law, John G. Cameron, was briefly living with the family in 1888.  Cameron operated a coffee importing business.

Interestingly, when "improvements" costing just over $4,000 in today's money were made to the house in May 1885, Mary Fraser paid for them.  It was most likely at this time that the house was updated with Italianate entrance doors and the parlor windows extended to the floor.

Dr. James C. MacKenzie was outspoken about what he saw as malpractice.  On June 20, 1888 he was called to the Wright house on West 28th Street where he found 14-year old Lulu "delirious [with a] temperature 104 degrees."  He had been called in as a second opinion, since the treatments of Dr. MacEttrick were not helping.

MacKenzie diagnosed the girl with meningitis and told the Board of Coroners that MacEttrick's treatment "seems to have been chiefly morphine...every three hours."  MacKenzie ordered the parents to stop administering the morphine, but the girl died later, at around 5:00 a.m.  He refused to sign a death certificate, referring the case to the Board for investigation.

Mary Cameron Fraser died in the house on May 15, 1890.  By the turn of the century only James C. MacKenzie, his wife Carrie and their children occupied the house.

Things between the couple was souring by 1905.  On April 29, 1905 Carrie went to the City Magistrate and claimed that her husband not only "threated to abandon" her but, indeed, had.  Now, she said, she was in fear "of becoming a burden upon the public."  The judge issued a warrant to have him appear to further explain the situation.

Dr. MacKenzie had, in truth, left home, prompting the magistrate to "adjudge be a disorderly person as charged."  He was ordered to pay the Commissioner of Public Charities $20 per week towards Carrie's and the children's support.  (The amount would equal $600 today.)

That was by no means the end of what would become an extremely public and ugly battle between the pair.  Carrie left the 22nd Street house with the children, and Dr. MacKenzie brought in "a housekeeper," Rose Nussbaum.

In 1907 James C. MacKenzie filed for divorce, charging Carrie with infidelity.  But he would need proof of such a scandalous accusation.  On October 9 Carrie "went for a ride," as she explained later, with a Mrs. Bell (who lived in the same boarding house with her), a man named Gilmore and the chauffeur, Charles Staples.   Carrie later said that Mrs. Bell "was persistent in extending invitations to me and really dominated me."

She said that they stopped for refreshments several times.  Each time she was pressed to drink alcohol, and each time she politely refused.  Eventually they ended up at a café on West 67th Street.  Someone ordered her a cocktail.

On March 25, 1908 The New York Times wrote "She said she did not drink the liquor, but ate the olive.  Immediately following they all got into the automobile and were driven down to the Van Buren Hotel, in East Twenty-sixth Street."  On the way there, Carrie said, she "gradually lost her senses, until by the time they reached the hotel she had to be helped out of the machine and into an upstairs apartment."

The next thing she remembered was struggling with a man, and then seeing her husband, accompanied by several other men, rush in.  Dr. MacKenzie had his evidence of extra-marriage dalliances.

In court, on March 24, Carrie testified that "She was sure that the olive had been drugged, and said that it was all part of a plan to entrap her," according to The New York Times.  She became overcome with emotion and the court had to be adjourned for 15 minutes while she composed herself.  The New York Times editorialized, saying "A pathetic circumstance was the presence of the couple's two young children during the proceedings."  (That was quite possibly a ploy on the part of Carrie's lawyer to gain the sympathy of the jury.)

The jury was out for three hours before coming to the decision that Carrie was innocent and that James MacKenzie "had been guilty of adultery with Mrs. Rose Nussbaum on divers occasions."   Carrie was awarded a degree of absolute divorce.

The drama of disorderly persons and drugged olives that had played out in newspapers for three years was not over.   Dr. James Cameron MacKenzie made it publicly known that he would be making Rose Nussbaum the chief beneficiary of his will, including the 22nd Street house.  But before he could do that he died suddenly of mysterious causes only three months later, on June 15.

Just as his funeral commenced two days later, investigators ordered it halted.  Interviews with MacKenzie's servants and the doctors who had attended him led his lawyer's filing a complaint "that his client did not die from natural causes."  Eventually Coroner Acritelli and three other physicians decided that "Dr. Mackensie had probably died from nephritis and oedema of lungs," as reported by The Evening World.

Carrie was quick to step in.  Four days after the funeral The New York Times entitled an article "Widow Demands Husband's Estate" and reported that Carrie had taken her two children to the 22nd Street house "and made a formal demand on Mrs. Nussbaum to hand over to them Dr. MacKenzie's effects."  Those effects, of course, included No. 432 West 22nd Street.

Rose Nussbaum had somehow been informed that Carrie was on the way and she had a policeman standing by "to prevent trouble."  She also had her lawyer with her.

A new battle ensued when Rose Nussbaum's attorney "refused to do so," forcing Carrie back to court.   On Monday, exactly one week after MacKenzie's sudden death, Rose agreed to vacate the house within three days, "pending a dispute in the courts as to which is entitled to Dr. Mackenzie's chattels," reported The Sun.

As it turned out, neither woman ever moved back into No. 432.  The estate sold the house to James P. Clark in August 1910.  He leased it two months later to Annie Cameron "for a term of years."  It is tempting to assume there is a connection between Annie and the Cameron-MacKenzie family, but any relationship is uncertain.

The lease ran out in October 1920 and in anticipation an advertisement was placed in The New York Times on March 3:

Three-Story Dwelling (Chelsea Section)
432 West 22d St., eleven rooms; price $15,000; possession October, 1920; little cash.

(The sale price would equal around $191,000 today.)

The house changed hands twice before Louis Saint Lanne purchased it in September 1922.  By now the neighborhood was not nearly so upscale as it had been 75 years earlier and Saint Lanne converted No. 432 to a rooming house for 15 tenants.

Among his tenants was the once-popular entertainer Dave Christy, born Lyman Van Valer in 1853.  Variety magazine described him as a "minstrel, balladist and actor."  He had started his career around 1882 with well-known acts like Harrington and Hart, McIntyre and Heath, and with Lester and Allen.  For several seasons he appeared in minstrel shows in San Francisco.

Christy, who never married, turned from vaudeville to the legitimate stage in 1889, with roles in popular plays like The Old Homestead, The Heart of Maryland and, in 1914, My Best Girl, which was possibly his last stage appearance.

As Christy's health declined, the Actor's Fund provided him a weekly stipend which paid his rent here.  He died in his room on May 15, 1926 at the age of 73.

The lintels had already been removed when this photo was taken around 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

No. 432 was converted to apartments, one per floor, in 1950; and then in 2006 it was renovated to a single-family home.  Although the window cornices were shaved off at some point, the house looks little different since Mary Fraser made her 1885 "improvements."

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Jason Weinberg for suggesting this post

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