Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Mary Dawson House - 218 Avenue A


The offset door (right) was originally the access to the rear house and yard.

By 1853 Mary Dawson ran the boarding house at No. 218 Avenue A.  It was a respectable way of making a living since the death of her husband, Patrick.  A mix of the popular Greek Revival and Italianate styles, the architectural detailing of her 25-foot wide house was modest--molded lintels and a dentiled cornice.  In the yard behind was a second, smaller house for additional rental income.

Two of Mary's tenants were Irish immigrants.  Andrew Bray worked as a laborer and Mary McBride was the widow of Owen McBride.   Her other tenant was German--reflecting the increasing German population in the neighborhood.  Diederich Ahrens and his wife Mary not only lived in the house, but he ran his grocery store from the ground floor.

The tenant list in front and back buildings continued to be exclusively Irish (with the exception of Ahrens) for years.  Along with Andrew Bray and Mary McBride three years later were William Daley, Hugh Fitzpatrick, John McGovern and Bridget Walsh.  Girls whose families fled the Great Famine in Ireland most often found domestic work.  On November 1, 1854 an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald that read "Wanted--A situation by a respectable young woman, as chambermaid and seamstress; has no objections to do the housework of a small family; has good city reference.  Can be seen at 218 Avenue A."

On June 15, 1860 Dietrich and Mary Ahrens had a baby girl.  Tragically the baby died a year later on July 20.  The following day The New York Herald announced simply, "The remains will be taken from the residence of her parents, No. 218 avenue the Lutheran Cemetery for interment, this afternoon, at half-past two o'clock."

Among the other tenants at the time was Michael Mulvany, who was a "driver"--most likely driving a delivery dray for a factory or railroad.  Three years later, with the Civil War raging in the South, the Government enacted a conscription act which called for all males between 20 and 45 years old (including aliens who intended to become citizens) to register for a draft.  A loophole was created whereby an exception could be purchased for $300--around $6,300 in today's money.

Working class immigrants like Michael Mulvany, of course, had no way to raise that amount of money.  When the city directories were issued later that year Mulvany was still listed at No. 218 Avenue A, but his profession was now "United States Army."

By the end of the war horse-drawn streetcars ran up and down Avenue A.  The Hyland family lived in No. 218 in 1870.  On the afternoon of February 13 Andrew Hyland, who was nine-years old, was coming home from Sunday school with two friends.  They saw a streetcar approaching but, according to the New York Herald, "attempted to cross the track ahead of the horses."  Andrew was "nearly opposite his father's residence" when he "fell on the rail track and was run over."  The newspaper reported "The remains were taken up and removed to the house, where Coroner Flynn was requested to hold an inquest."  The driver was arrested pending an investigation.

By 1872 the house was owned by the Radley family.  Joseph Radley operated his leather goods business in the store.  He and his wife, Eliza, had a daughter, Mary.  His father, Ignatius, who was retired, lived with the family.

Interestingly, the tenant list, which so recently had been almost exclusively Irish, was now almost totally German.  The names of Radley's roomers included, Gauss, Schmeder, Schuhknecht, Hinkel, Eberwein, Zittel and Kamper, for instance.

Eliza Radley died "suddenly" on January 7, 1873.  The funeral of the 44-year old was held in the house two days later.  Another funeral was held here on December 4, 1875.  Ignatius died at the age of 84 two days earlier.

By 1878 Mary Radley was helping her father with his business.  On March 13 that year she walked to the German Exchange Bank at the corner of Bowery and Stanton Street to make a deposit of $299--a considerable $7,900 in cash today.  No doubt for her safety, an acquaintance, Frank Wedel, accompanied her.

When they arrived at the bank they found it crowded and, as reported by The New York Times, "Wedel told Miss Radley that if it were inconvenient or unpleasant for her to push her way through the crowd, he would go up and deposit the money for her and save her the annoyance."  Mary agreed and Wedel took the money, disappeared into the crowd, and fled the city.

Investigators quickly tracked him down in Baltimore.  He was arrested nine days later and on the evening of March 22 Detective George H. Dilks returned on the train with Frank Wedel in tow.  He was taken to the Tombs awaiting trial.

Joseph Radley's tenants continued to be nearly all German into the 1880's.  The residents of the rear house in 1880 included painter Joseph Ferber; Conrad Flohr, Mary Sadler, a widow; and carpenter Henry Schell.  An exception was James Reed, who made his living as a stencil cutter.

Tenant Margaret Miller worked as a domestic.  The 60-year old had finished the laundry at her employer's flat at No. 48 Avenue A on March 20, 1882 and began hanging it out to dry.  The rear courtyards of apartment buildings were crisscrossed with clotheslines on pulleys.  As she stretched out to hang an article of clothing, she lost her balance and fell four stories to the yard below.  She was killed instantly.

The rather primitive conditions for the residents was evidenced in August 1906 when the property was offered for sale.  An advertisement in The New York Times described the buildings as "4-story tenements, toilets in yard."

Although the majority of the German population moved north to the Yorkville neighborhood before World War I, the area around No. 218 continued to be a mix of ethnicities.  Joseph Kuhn lived here in January 1926 when he submitted his name to a raffle hosted by radio station WRNY.  An article in The Sun's "Radio Section" on January 23 began "Number 13 disproved its reputation for Joseph Kuhn, 50 year old blind man, who lives at 218 Avenue A, for on Sunday night his name was the thirteenth to be drawn in the Listeners-In-Contest."

The article said, "Joseph Kuhn has been blind since the age of 6, when the ravages of scarlet fever deprived him of his sight.  He lives in a little drab two room flat on Avenue A and manages to eke out a sustenance with what he earns playing the piano and the little support the State gives him."  Kuhn's win earned him a "five tube radio set."

The building as it appeared around 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

George Siglar lived in the building in the Great Depression years.  At around 1:30 on the morning of October 21, 1932 he was riding in the automobile of Edward Fauer who was apparently bringing him home.  They had almost made it when Fauer noticed a friend at East 13th Street and Avenue A and pulled the car over to talk.  Just as Fauer was about to drive off again, two men appeared and demanded money.

In the affray that followed Siglar was stabbed in the chest, suffered a broken nose and was robbed of $31.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "The two robbers then threw Siglar and Fauer from the machine."  One of the thugs jumped in and drove off, leaving his accomplice on his own.

Fauer's and Siglar's shouts were heard by a patrolman who caught Tony Fasulo, the one who had stabbed Siglar.  He had an interesting alibi at police headquarters.  "In the lineup Fasulo insisted he was drunk and did not know what happened."

The gritty East Village neighborhood changed in the third quarter of 20th century as artists and musicians moved in.  Today the apartments in both the front and back buildings at No. 218 Avenue A are outfitted with modern amenities like stainless steel appliances--and indoor plumbing.  Realtors romantically and incorrectly market the rear apartments as being in "the carriage house."  But other than a coat of paint, a 20th century fire escape, and a reconfiguration of the residential entrance, little has changed outwardly to the widow Mary Dawson's house.

photograph by the author

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