Friday, June 18, 2021

The M. B. McAvoy Drugstore Building - 163 Christopher Street


In 1877 Levi A. Lockwood acquired the three vintage structures at the northeast corner of Washington and Christopher Streets.  Two years later he hired architect John B. Snook to design a store and flat building on the site.  Completed in 1880, the five-story structure was faced in red brick and trimmed in limestone.  Snook chamfered the corner to give additional light and ventilation to the apartments.  The residential entrance was flanked by two commercial spaces.

A fire escape system in the form of iron-railed balconies was both handsome and ingenious.  An enclosed, fireproof stairway essentially bisected the structure into two buildings.  Hallway doors opened onto the balconies, allowing tenants exit the burning side, enter the stairwell, and descend safely to the street.

The smaller store became home to Gottfried I Hartung's "segar" store, while the larger corner space became home to William H. Lauer's saloon, no doubt a welcome sight for sailors and dock men along the nearby riverfront.  

Lauer's business had not operated long before he was convicted for manslaughter on May 24, 1880.   He had hit and killed a pedestrian on the evening of October 24, 1879, then "whipped his horse into a run," as reported in the Public Ledger.   A police officer tried to chase him down, but gave up.  He had seen, however, "that the name painted on the wagon was Lauer."

The building's residents were, expectedly, working class.  Among the initial tenants were the Stock family, which had significant domestic problems.  On January 31, 1880 The Evening Telegram reported, "Frederick Stock, a sallow-complexioned, broad-shouldered young man of twenty-two years...was this morning arraigned before Justice Duffy, in the Jefferson Market Police Court, by a policeman of the Charles street police station, and called upon to answer for an assault committed by him upon his mother, a lady of about fifty-five years of age."  Mrs. Stock appeared in court with a swollen and badly bruised face, "the result, she said, of her son's brutality."

Additionally, when Frederick's father had attempted to intervene, Frederick threatened to kill him with a "huge knife," according to the arresting officer.  The young man's sister was also in court, testifying that he had previously stolen various pieces of jewelry from her.  When Frederick was unable to post the $700 bail (more than $18,000 today), he was sent to the Workhouse on Blackwell's Island.

The socio-economic level of the residents in the mid-1880's was reflected in their various jobs.  Francis Albony, for instance, was a bootblack; William Coffey was a watchman (a security guard by today's terms); Jonathan L. Cole was a house painter while John W. Cole was a carpenter.  

A young French couple named Tillard arrived in New York in 1883 and moved into the building.  Tillard had been a lieutenant in the French Army and now went into the wine business.  On the afternoon of August 31 another tenant heard moaning coming from the Tillard apartment.  The Evening Post reported, "Madame Tillard...was found lying on the bed, and when questioned as to what was the matter, said she felt very badly."  The neighbor assumed she was suffering from a toothache and left. 

The situation was much worse than a toothache.  When her husband returned home at about 6:00 that evening he found her "in a serious way" and, when he looked closer, "discovered that she had been shot in the neck."  A French-speaking physician was called, who sent for an ambulance.  The 25-year-old woman was critically injured.  According to The Evening Post, "The bullet had entered close to the wind-pipe and lodged in the back of the neck.  The bullet was of a large calibre."

Police assumed that Madame Tillard "was cleaning out a bureau drawer, when she found a pistol which her husband had placed there.  She did not know it was loaded, and while carelessly handling it, it went off."

By 1896 Joseph Schenone ran his fruit store in the former cigar shop and lived with his mother upstairs.  On April 16 he placed an advertisement in the New York Herald that read, "LOST -- An old woman (Italian): strayed away from home; aged about 65 years; any information will be rewarded; $10 reward, dead or alive."

Teresa Schenone spoke no English.  She left the apartment on April 10 and walked to her daughter's home at 119 Baxter Street.  She arrived there, spent some time, and headed back at 5:00, but never arrived home.  Now, a week later, Joseph gave a detailed description:

She wore a black calico dress with white lace on it, a white shawl and a black wrap.  She was small and had gray hair.  She was very strong for her age, however, and could easily walk from Baxter street to this place.  She did this repeatedly.

Joseph's statements, however, were a bit concerning.  "It is my opinion that she came out of my sister's and started east instead of west for Hudson street.  She probably got lost, and has been staying with Italians on the east side," he told reporters.  The idea that the woman would not have tried to get home after week made no sense; nor did her making such a drastic mistake after having made the trip "repeatedly."  And the fact that her son waited nearly that long to look for her was even more suspicious.  Whether Teresa was ever found is unclear.

Irish-born Sullivan family lived here in 1905.  Tom Sullivan passed by the brother of Tony Salamone--a member of the Black Hand terrorist group--on Hudson Street that summer, ignoring him.  According to The Sun on July 25, "The latter walked up to Sullivan and asked why he didn't speak.  'I knew you all right,' replied Sullivan, 'but I don't have to speak to the likes of you.'"  Hearing of the affront on his brother, Tony Salamone set out to "fix things."

A few nights later, on July 24, Tony found Tom on the street and said something.  Tom responded and wisely hurried on.  When he reached the door to the Christopher Street building, Tony stopped him from entering, "and asked him to walk along the street a bit further."  When they got to the corner of Washington Street, Tony pulled out a razor.  Sullivan ran to the door of the parish house of St. Veronica's Church, where he had been an altar boy.

The Sun said, "He rang the bell, but his call was not answered, and almost at once the Italian was at him slashing with the razor until Sullivan sank in a pool of blood on the steps of the house."  Although none of the terrified bystanders came to Tom's aid, someone did run to the Sullivan apartment and notified his brother, James.  While James chased Salamone, "a large crowd had gathered and nearly 300 joined in the hunt."

James Sullivan overtook Salamone at the corner of Barrow and Hudson Streets, "and the crowd closed in."  Luckily for Salamone, Detective Carmody was quickly on the scene.   Otherwise, said The Sun, "Tony might never have needed the services of anything but a coroner's jury.  As it was, Carmody had a hard fight to land his prisoner in the station house."  In the meantime, Tom Sullivan was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital where he was given "a small chance to live."

At the time of that episode Minnie Belle McAvoy had just taken over the corner commercial space for her M. B. McAvoy Pharmacy.   William Lauer's saloon had survived through the 1880's, replaced by the McRae & Co. drugstore.  On July 27, 1905 The Pharmaceutical Era reported that Minnie McAvoy "succeeds McRay & Co."  She paid $3,500 for the business--a significant $105,000 in today's money.

Born in Rome, New York in 1876, she had graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1902.  She had initially worked in a drugstore before deciding to strike out on her own.  

Minnie McAvoy's business drew its customers from three main sources--the blue collar neighborhood residents, the crowds of people who streamed past on their way to and from the ferry to New Jersey at the foot of Christopher Street, and the hoards of sailors whose ships docked along the waterfront.  The stout woman's personality--a mixture of no-nonsense business and maternal compassion--quickly made her a beloved figure.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle later described her saying she "runs a pharmacy, is guide and philosopher to sailors and marine workers...and trusted by everybody.  She'll pass the time of day, hold money and valuables for seafaring folk, talk shop about her medicines, run a little post office for seamen who even entrust her with personal matters."

Stockbroker Walter B. Boyle was passing by the pharmacy on July 18, 1908 after getting off the ferry from Hoboken.  At the corner of Washington Street he came across two men loudly arguing.  "Gentlemen, don't quarrel!" he said.

The San Francisco Call reported, "That mild remark cause two stop their altercation, pick up the speaker and throw him through a big plate glass window into McAvoy's drug store, at 163 Christopher street.  They fled, but Policeman Beggs of the Charles street station arrested the peace maker as he lay amid broken glass and patent medicine bottles."

Boyle was charged with intoxication.  In the Jefferson Market Court an hour later he pleaded that he was a witness, not a culprit.  Magistrate Walsh seems to have believed him, but wondered aloud who was going to pay for Minnie McAvoy's window.  The would-be pacifist discovered that his good intentions would cost him.  He promised to replace the window.

"That's the proper spirit," said the judge, "I'll fine you $2."

The opening of the Hudson River Tubes on Christopher Street in 1908 put an end to the ferry service.  Nevertheless, Minnie McAvoy's business prospered and the story of the plucky woman spread across the nation.  

On February 4, 1924 The Alaska Daily Empire said, "she is a manufacturing chemist, shipping her preparations to all parts of the world.  At the same time she is known as 'Doctor' all over her neighborhood, where people take their minor ills to her."  Among her self-made tonics was an herbal compound the sailors swore cured a hangover.  According to The New Yorker in 1938, "She has sold 50,000 bottles in the last 29 years."

Minnie McAvoy shakes a barrel of her remedy before bottling it.  She told a reporter "The agitation has to be kept up continuously for half an hour before it is ready to be drawn."  The Spatula, February 1924 (copyright expired)

In the early hours of August 22, 1925 two patrolmen, officers Joseph McAllister and Thomas Rooney, were passing the drugstore when they heard the sound of crashing glass.   Three burglars had gotten into the cellar by breaking a padlock and then cut a two-foot hole in the basement ceiling to gain entrance to the store.  Two of them,  James McArdle and Frank Brien, shimmied up, leaving the Joseph Kopp to stand guard.  But in the darkness they bumped into a pile of Minnie's glass chemical containers which crashed to the floor, alerting the police on the sidewalk.  At the same time the burglar alarm went off.

The New York Times reported, "The police were already at the door when the bell started clanging, and at this instant...Brien and McArdle, deciding it was time to leave, ducked through the hole in the floor and dashed out of the cellar exit, leaving Kopp behind."  The officers chased the two down Christopher Street until two pistol shots into the air convinced the crooks to stop.

Back at the drugstore Officer Rooney found Kopp hiding in the dark basement.  "Then were sounds of a scuffle, and the policeman appeared with his man," said the article.  A block away the police found the getaway car, stolen a week earlier.  The men were later identified as the trio that had held up a Chinese restaurant on West 42nd Street earlier that night.

Minnie Belle McAvoy's reputation continued to spread.  On May 3, 1939 the Danville, Kentucky newspaper the Kentucky Advocate reported, "Seafaring men from all over the world drop in at Miss Minnie Belle McAvoy's drug store in Greenwich Village, New York, to have her give them medicine and kind words.  To many of them she is 'Mother McAvoy,' and her acquaintance with truckmen, sailors and clerks from wholesale houses has grown considerably in the thirty-three years since she first opened up her shop."

Minnie McAvoy tends to a neighborhood boy's scalded arm.  The Alaska Daily Empire, February 4, 1924

The New York Times said, "Mother McAvoy learned phrases from half a dozen foreign languages, so that she could converse with sailors who knew only Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and a few others.  From her old-fashioned desk in the store she also acted as a notary public and helped many sailors who turned to land-lubbing to become citizens."

Minnie McAvoy was so trusted that, according to The New Yorker in 1938, "Many sailors make straight for Mother McAvoy's when they get paid off and give her most of their money to put away in her safe to prevent wild spending."  The New York Times added, "Occasionally, when a sailor boisterously demanded all of his pay so he could 'see the town,' Mother McAvoy would look at him cautiously, hand him a dollar and tell him to come back for more when he felt better."  

The McAvoy Drug Store window noted that services like "citizen papers filled out here" and "notary public" were available.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Kentucky Advocate noted on May 3, 1939, "Sometimes [her customers] borrow money of her and she boasts that she has never lost a cent.  They are goodhearted and honest, she says, and adds that you get what you give in this world."

Then, on November 12, 1940, The New York Times reported, "Miss Minnie Belle McAvoy, known to sailors of the seven seas as 'Mother McAvoy,' and one of the few women proprietors of a drug store in this city, died yesterday at the age of 64.  For more than forty years she had spent her days from sunrise to sunset in a small old-time drug store at 163 Christopher Street...just a block from the teeming Chelsea waterfront."

The article recalled, "To sailors and truckmen of the neighborhood she was more than a druggist who had invented her own special vegetable tonic that was excellent for a hangover.  She was a friendly counsellor and a 'bank' and 'post office' for sailors on their brief stays ashore from far-away lands."  The newspaper quoted her as once stating, "Folks sometimes say this is a rough, tough neighborhood.  'Pshaw,' I tell them, it's the nicest, kindest place in the world."

Minnie Belle McAvoy's funeral was held in St. Veronica's Church just up the block on November 13.  It ended a remarkable chapter in Greenwich Village history.

The McAvoy pharmacy entrances were on either side of a show window, unlike the corner configuration today.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The second half of the 20th century saw tremendous change in the neighborhood.  By 1975 the smaller store was the home of Edward Gilly's custom made stained glass shop, and the former McAvoy pharmacy had become the Silver Dollar Restaurant.  

As had been with case with the drugstore, the restaurant was broken into in the early morning hours of May 13, 1977.  The burglars did not make off with cash and their loot was easily detected.  The Villager reported, "Two suspects were reportedly found walking along West 11th St., with cases of meat after a robbery at a restaurant at 163 Christopher St."  Anthony Bosco was charged with burglary, possession of stolen property, and resisting arrest, while the other culprit escaped.

Mother McAvoy's funeral was held in St. Veronica's Church, to the right.

Both commercial spaces house restaurants today, while the upper portion of John B. Snook's 1880 structure remains remarkably unaltered.  And Mother McAvoy, a significant figure in Greenwich Village history, has largely been forgotten.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Joseph McConnell for suggesting this post
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