Saturday, January 9, 2021

The 1856 James and Euphemia Russell House - 208 West 11th Street


The floor-to-ceiling parlor windows may well have originally been fronted by a cast iron balcony.

Builder and contractor Elisha Bloomer erected significant structures like the University of the City of New York building on Washington Square.   In 1856 he completed a row of four Italianate homes on Hammond Street, between Seventh Avenue and Waverly Place.   The brownstone fronted residences were 18-feet wide and rose three stories above English basements.  Molded lintels and sills sitting upon minute brackets enhanced the openings.  A single bracketed cornice unified the row.

No. 5 Hammond (renumbered 208 West 11th Street around 1865) was originally shared by two residents and, most likely, their families.  Elisha Bloomer was an accountant on Murray Street before going into the jewelry business in 1860.  Walter D. Stewart ran a shoe and boot business at No. 14 Warren Street.

In 1864 the house became home to James and Euphemia Russell.  Russell operated a brewery on Greenwich Avenue.  He seems to have surreptitiously branched into the liquor trade in 1868.  The New York Evening Express reported on June 3 that a "condemnation" had been filed after "Eighteen barrels of distilled spirits [were] found at 208 West Eleventh street."

The couple suffered tragedy on June 15, 1870 when their three month old daughter, Elizabeth, died.  The door of No. 208 was hung with black crepe and the infant's funeral was held in the parlor the following afternoon.

Around 1876 the Russells moved to Westchester County, but retained possession of No. 208 which was now operated as a boarding house.  On June 4 that year an advertisement offered "A pleasant front room, hot and cold water, gas and bath, elegantly furnished; house and neighborhood first class; rent $6 per week."  The weekly rent would be equal to around $148 today.

Over the next decade respectable boarders like Frank B. West, who worked as a clerk in a downtown office, came and went.  In 1882 two musicians, brothers Carl and Edward Hermann, gave lessons from their rooms.

Edward Hermann was a violinist and Carl a pianist.  Carl was his brother's accompanist during concerts.  Such was the case on January 22, 1883 when Edward gave a concert in Steinway Hall.  It was received by a cringe-worthy review.

The critic of Music and Drama said the audience who heard Edward play Beethoven's Violin Concerto "are deserving of special sympathy, as a more deplorable performance can hardly be conceived.  Mr. Hermann has no tone, cannot play in tune, and lacks the slightest trace of anything like intelligence."  As if that were not scathing enough, the critic continued "As for breadth of style, sentiment, or perception of the composer's meaning, they were all qualities conspicuous by their absence, in his puerile attempt to struggle through this noble work.  His other efforts were equally bad."  It noted briefly "Mr. Carl Hermann contributed some specimens of pianism."

Mrs. Harriet Goble ran the boarding house in the 1890's.  Among her most notable boarders was Robert Mayhew, described by The New York Times as the 8th Ward's "most celebrated resident."  The old man had been a familiar character in Greenwich Village for more than 25 years.  The New York Times said "Year after year he wore the same gray linen duster and the same straw hat, Winter and Summer alike.  He invariably carried a cane, and his long red nose was as much a source of interest and attraction to the children as was the pocketful of candy and oranges with which he was always supplied."

Mayhew never worked, instead relying on a clever scheme.  Knowing that obstructing the sidewalk with merchandise or unlicensed stands was illegal, he would confront shop owners and threaten to call an officer.  But then he would offer to "fix the matter up with the authorities" for a fee.  Most often the merchant agreed and "Mayhew thus lived easily and comfortably," according to the newspaper.

Robert Mayhew enjoyed the reputation of being the greatest liar in the neighborhood.  His various stories included having two sisters who were so tall no one would marry them, and having an aunt in England who was 108 years old.  He also claimed to be the son of Admiral Bruce of the English navy and a lineal descendant of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.  According to his story he was born Robert Mayhew Barrymore Bruce on August 19, 1800.  At the age of 9 he "gave great offense to his father and was beaten by him."  His father "discarded and disowned him" and forbade him from using the family name.

In November 1891 Mayhew caught a cold.  His sickness worsened and he was taken to St. Luke's Hospital where he died on January 5.  Amazingly, documents found in his room in the West 11th Street house supported his unbelievable story about his life, including papers drawn up in preparation for a suit in the English Courts to recover property inherited by the other children of his father.

Harriet Goble took in a new boarder in July 1896.  Margaret J. Seiley was 50 years old and the widow of a former officer in the English army.   She received his pension of $75 per month, or about $2,360 today.

Interestingly, Seily was the name of her first husband who, according to a friend, "ran off with another woman two years ago."  She then married Major Fitzjohn, who died not long afterward.  The Sun opined "She apparently assumed her first husband's name because she was still fond of him."  The two kept up a regular correspondence.  

Four months after Margaret moved in, on November 11, Harriet discovered her dead in her room, having committed suicide by inhaling lighting gas.  The Utica Semi-Weekly Herald reported "There were two motives for her act.  One was that she was approaching total blindness and the other was her separation from her two sons, who recently went abroad to accept positions offered them in Russia."  The Sun assumed that she would leave her property to "her sister, a Mrs. Gilmore, who lives in this city, it is supposed."

But she did not.  On November 13 The New York Times ran an article entitled "Suicide Slights Relative" which reported that Margaret had left her entire estate to a 45 year old clerk who worked in the office of her attorney.  It was unclear how large her estate would be, however bank books showed that she had at least nearly a quarter of a million dollars, in today's money.

In 1909 the estate of James Russell sold No. 208.  It was still home to respectable boarders like the Rev. John C. Newman.  But by the World War I years, a few less upstanding residents lived here.  Among them was John Collins who was arrested for violating the New New York State "Loafer Law" in July 1918.

The law demanded that every "able-bodied male between the ages of eighteen and fifty years" who was not serving in the military be engaged in some sort of "lawful, useful and recognized" occupation until the end of the war.  On July 11 The Sun reported "the first three men sentence to jail as loafers under the new State law which requires folk who will not fight to work were arraigned yesterday."  Among them was John Collins.  The 35-year old was sentenced to three months in the workhouse.

The life of another tenant, Martin Seller, came to an abrupt end on March 13, 1919.  The New-York Tribune reported he was "found dead in a hallway of a negro tenement at 246 West Sixty-second Street."  The responding ambulance surgeon "said death was due to strangulation."  The article noted "In the same block two negro murders occurred within two weeks."

The following year No. 208 was sold.  During the Depression years it was home to several Italian-American families.  In 1936 the Federal Government's Special Committee on Un-American Activities listed tenants Amaryllis Nicol, Ernestine Cocito and Michael Maccario as "workers for the Communist Party ticket."

By 1941 the house had lost its Victorian detailing.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

At some point the stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the former basement level.  In an effort to give the building a more modern appeal, the molded lintels of the windows and former doorway were shaved flat.

A renovation completed in 2002 resulted in two duplex apartments and brought back the mid-19th century appearance.  The stoop was refabricated and the lost architectural elements were replaced with applaudable approximations of the originals.

photographs by the author

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