Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The 1836 Henry J. Seaman House - 152 West 11th Street


The charming copper entrance hood and attic enframement were added around 1895.

In 1835 builder Aaron Marsh and carpenter John Simmons purchased the four building lots at Nos. 146 through 152 West 11th Street from Alexander Robertson Rodgers.   A year later four prim, 18-foot wide homes stood on the site, each two-and-a-half stories tall.  No. 152 was owned by Simmons and it, like its identical neighbors, was faced in Flemish bond brick and sat upon a brownstone basement level protected by anthemion decorated iron fencing.  The Greek Revival design included pilasters and sidelights on either side of the single-doored entrance.  The squat attic level replaced the peaked roof and dormers of the Federal style which was falling from favor.

By the mid-1840's it was home to Luiz H. Ferreira D'Aguiar, the Brazilian Consul General and his bride, the former Emeline Wilkie.   Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1812, D'Aguiar's father was the court physician to Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil.  Luiz was sent as attaché to the Brazilian Legation in Washington in 1837, and then transferred to New York City in 1841 as Consul General.

He and Emeline were married in January two years later.  The couple had two sons, Luis and Alberto.  Like all the families along the block Emeline had domestic help.  An advertisement that appeared in the New York Herald on September 22, 1845 read:

A First Rate Female Cook, well acquainted with her business, for a small private family.  Also, a Black Boy of about sixteen years old, at 152 Eleventh street.

Sadly, Emeline died on March 22, 1846.  Her funeral was held in the 11th Street house two days later.   The Manhattan and De La Salle Monthly later said that after her death, "he has devoted himself entirely to the welfare of his sons, seeking but little pleasure beyond the circle of the household and devoting his life to acts of Charity."

In 1854 the house was purchased by Henry J. Seaman.  Born on Staten Island in 1805, he had served as a New York Representative to Congress from 1845 through 1847.  He was a broker with offices on William Street, but his business interests went far beyond that.  He was, as well, a director in the Mechanics' Fire Insurance Company and the Staten Island Railroad, and the secretary of the Plank Road Co.  

Still highly involved in politics, in 1854, just before moving into No. 152 West 11th Street, he was elected the chairman of the Whig General Committee of Richmond County, and he served as a delegate to the Congressional Convention that year.

In 1858 Henry Seaman returned to Staten Island, but he did not sell the 11th Street house.  He leased it first to Joseph P. Baker, a drygoods merchant, who lived here at least from 1858 through 1865.  And then, by 1870, Mary D. Gleason was leasing the house and operating it as a respectable boarding house.

Mary took in only a small number of boarders--seemingly never more than three at a time.  In 1872 Katherine Bevier lived in the house.  She was a teacher in the girls' department of Grammar School No. 51 on West 44th Street.   The following year Hamilton R. Findlay, an "agent," boarded here.  Mary's advertisement on June 8, 1873, offered "handsomely furnished Rooms to let, with Board, to gentlemen and their wives or single gentlemen."

Among Mary's boarders by 1885 was Dr. John A. Burke, a bachelor, and former house surgeon at St. Vincent's Hospital.   On the evening of February 25 that year a sick man knocked on the door and implored Dr. Burke to come to the boarding house where he lived at No. 5 Perry Street.

That morning, according to the New York Herald, Mrs. A. S. Pack's boarders "were pleasurably the information that they would have buckwheat cakes for lunch.  The excellence of Mrs. Pack's cakes enticed back to lunch boarders who worked at great distances from the house.  Everybody ate heartily of the cakes."

As everyone went back to their routines, Mrs. Pack began feeling ill, followed by her niece and two servants.  "The boarders who had gone out began to return one by one, looking very pale, and complaining of feeling painfully ill.  Before nightfall, everybody who had tackled the seductive cakes was in bed," said the article."

Dr. Burke later told officials, "When I arrived there the place resembled a hospital ward.  A dozen people were in bed suffering acutely with what seemed to be the effects of arsenical poison, at any rate, a mineral poison of some kind."  Burke worked on the patients until nearly daybreak, some of whom were "dangerously sick."  Luckily all of them recovered.   How the buckwheat had been laced with arsenic was a mystery and both Mrs. Pack's and her grocer's buckwheat were analyzed by the Health Board.

Henry J. Seaman had died in 1861, but his family retained possession of the house, continuing to lease it to Mary Gleason.  Dr. Burke was still a resident in 1894 when he made headlines not for a medical, but romantic, achievement.

On June 12 The Evening World entitled an article "Bessie Cleveland No More," and began by saying, "The marriage of Miss Bessie Cleveland, the actress, and Dr. John A. Burke, of 152 West Eleventh street, will take place this evening at the home of Dr. Burke's parents, at Pittsfield, Mass."  Bessie Cleveland was a popular stage actress and a relative of President Grover Cleveland (her father, Samuel E. Cleveland, was the President's cousin).  The article noted, "It is thought that the actress will retire from the stage.  At Dr. Burke's home this morning it was said the couple would take a two weeks' trip West."

This photograph of Bessie Cleveland was taken the same year she married Dr. Burke.  The Marie Burroughs Art Porfolio of Stage Celebrities 1894 (copyright expired)

When the couple returned to New York, they would be the only residents of No. 152.  Burke leased it directly from the Seaman family by now.  It was almost assuredly Burke who gave the house its charismatic 1890's touches--a copper hood with milk glass panels over the entrance, a delightful copper frame around the attic windows, and a Spanish tile faux roof.

The late Victorian upgrading left all the Greek Revival elements intact, including the doorway.

No doubt because of his wife's theatrical connections, many of his patients were well-known actors, theater owners and managers.  Among them were Edward Harrigan, former member of the blackface team of Harrigan & Hart and the owner of Harrigan's Theater on West 35th Street, and English-born actor William Faversham, who went on to play in motion pictures.

One of Dr. Burke's most unusual cases was that of Murray Hall.   Hall was well known in political and club circles.  He had arrived in New York around 1871 and opened an employment bureau on Sixth Avenue at 23rd Street.  The Evening World described him a "a good fellow who liked to buy drinks for his friends of either sex, who was willing to fight even if he weighed but 115 pounds; was an ardent Democrat and an active worker for Tammany Hall...His voice was deep and his walk and actions masculine, though his face was devoid of whiskers."  He had been twice married and he lived with an adopted daughter, Imelda Hall.

On December 6, 1900 Dr. Burke was called to Murray Hall's home.  He knew Hall by sight, but had never before attended to him professionally.  Hall told him he was suffering "from cancer of the breast" and wanted a prescription.  Burke later recalled, "'I said 'Take off your shirt,' and took off my coat and rolled up my sleeves preparatory to making a proper examination.'"  But Hall steadfastly refused.  Burke said he "regarded it as peculiar, but left, and a few days afterward was called in again."

Once again Hall demanded a prescription.  And once again Burke said "it was impossible unless I could make a complete examination."  Hall refused to remove his shirt, and declared that "cancer could not be cured anyway."  Burke did not prescribe medication and chalked up Hall's refusal to be examined to "crankiness."

The [Cincinnati] Enquirer, January 22, 1901 (copyright expired)

The mystery was cleared up a month later when Murray Hall died.  It was then discovered that he was a transsexual who had been living as a man for decades.  Gender identity issues were not understood and certainly not spoken of at the turn of the last century--explaining Hall's terror at the prospect of removing his shirt and exposing his secret.  Newspapers across the country, of course, published long articles about him which made his case sound freakish.  Somewhat tragically, Hall was buried in a dress.

In 1913 The New York Sun reported that the Seaman family had sold No. 152 West 11th Street, noting, "This is the first sale of this property since 1854."  It was purchased by John Lowe and his wife.  She was an ardent suffragist, and the Manhattan Borough Assembly District Leader of the Woman Suffrage Party of the City of New York.  She routinely held meetings in the house, like the "canvassing bee" held here on April 27, 1915.

The Lowes' residency was short-lived.  By the outbreak of World War I the family of Michael J. Coxe lived here.   He and his wife, the former Elizabeth Wentworth, had seven children.

When the family moved into the 11th Street house, son Thomas was a police officer.  With the outbreak of war, his brother Edward G. Coxe, joined the U.S. Army.  A private in Company D of the 165th Infantry, he was deployed to France.  There, on July 28, 1918 his unit was engaged in battle at Ferme de Meurcy.  According to Heroes All! in 1919, "He continued to care for the wounded under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire after he himself was severely injured."  Coxe died from his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Thomas Coxe retired from the Police Department as a lieutenant and in 1918 took a position as bodyguard to Mayor John F. Hylan for a few years.  It was apparently a warm working relationship, and on May 17, 1925, in reporting on a parade for the mayor, the Brooklyn newspaper The Standard Union noted:

During one of the halts in the parade, Mayor Hyland had a brief chat.  This was when the column neared 152 West Eleventh street, the home of ex-Lieut. Thomas Cox[e], a retired policeman, who several years ago was a member of the Mayor's bodyguard.  While the column stood at ease, the Mayor, Lieut. Quinn and Sinnott approached the house and were introduced to the members of the ex-policeman's family.

Within the decade the house became home to magazine publisher and editor, Seward Collins and his wife, author Dorothea Brande.  Dorothea taught creative writing courses from the house in the mid-1930's.  In 1936 one of her novels, Wake Up And Live, was purchased by 20th Century-Fox.  The subsequent movie starred Claire Trevor, Patsy Kelly and Jack Haley.  The couple lived here at least into the 1940's.

The charming little house has never been converted to apartments.  The only one of the 1836 row not to have had its attic level raised to full height, its storybook presence is a delight on the picturesque block.

photographs by the author

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