Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Solomon Strauss House - 221 West 38th Street


In 1855 well-dressed ladies and gentlemen strolled through the magnificent Crystal Palace on Reservoir Square (today's Bryant Park).  It had been opened two years earlier for the Exhibition of Industry of All Nations.  Just over a block away to the west, at 221 West 38th Street, Frederick List and his family lived in a handsome brownstone-clad residence.

List was described in directories as a "segarmaker."  Based on his impressive home, he most likely owned a significant cigar-making business.  Four stories tall above a high English basement and three bays wide, its parlor floor featured full-height windows and and an elegant arched entrance.  The segmentally arched openings of the upper floors were fully framed and capped with flat molded cornices.   An ornate pressed metal bracketed cornice completed the design.

In 1857 Solomon Strauss and his wife, Frederica, purchased the house.   A wealthy merchant, he was the principal in the downtown drygoods store of Solomon Strauss & Co.  When the family moved in, Henry Solomon Strauss was attending the Free Academy of the City of New York.  His younger brother, William, would also graduate from the school and later from the Columbia University Law School.

Solomon Strauss died on December 12, 1878 at the age of 55.  His funeral was held in the parlor three days later.  By now Henry was in in the corset business at 79 White Street and William had had his own legal practice since 1872.  He was dabbling in politics, as well.

On October 31, 1880, The New York Times reported that William had been nominated for assemblyman of the 15th District.  The newspaper heartily gave its endorsement, saying "he is a candidate entirely worthy of support.  His father was the late Solomon Strauss, who was an old and respected merchant at the time of his death."

The Strauss family remained in the residence until the mid-1880s'.  In 1886 it was home to the Robinson family.  Robert H. Robinson was in the shoe business and William H. Robinson devoted his private time to breeding and showing pedigree dogs.

Living with the family was another dog breeder, Crump Ormsby.  On November 18, 1887, the New York Herald reported, "The organization of the American Toy Dog Club, for some time past under consideration, has been effected."  Ormsby was elected secretary of the new organization.  The article noted, "Some of the members object to the name and want it changed to Pet Dog Club."

There were four dogs in the house.  Ormsby's Pug, "a winner of many prizes in England and one in this country," according to The Sun, and Pug's daughter, Gypsy, which had not yet been shown.  The Robinsons' had a thoroughbred Newfoundland puppy, Raven, and another dog.

The neighbors, too, were dog lovers.  According to William, "all are respectable families, and all but one keep fine dogs."  Nevertheless, someone in the neighborhood had a grudge against the four dogs in the Robinson house.  On January 13, 1888 The Sun reported, "Two valuable dogs were poisoned on Tuesday night in the back yard of 221 West thirty-eighth street, and the whole neighborhood, being a sort of metropolis for fancy dogs, is in a considerable state of excitement."

Gypsy and Raven had been let out into the yard at around 8:00 that night.  "When they were let in through the back parlor window, Gypsy at once went into convulsions and died.  Raven was discovered dead under a chair," said the article."  William Robinson suspected "that a servant in some of these houses has been bribed to kill the dogs by some jealous fancier."

The house was sold at auction on March 7, 1894, after which it became a "theatrical boarding house," as described by The Sun.  Among the earliest residents were actor Henry Maeder Pitt and his wife, actress Margaret Pitt, who lived on the second floor.  Henry had made his first appearance on stage at the age of 14.  

Margaret was not at home on the afternoon of March 7, 1898.  Another boarder, actress Lucky Mackin, heard moaning coming from their rooms and entered.  Pitt was on the bed and a doctor was sent for, but the actor died ten minutes after he arrived.  Policeman Holland put in his report that Pitt had killed himself by drinking carbolic acid.  Coroner Zucca agreed, without doing an examination.

Suicide in the 19th century was a serious and shameful charge.  A journalist from The Sun challenged Zucca, noting that Pitt's lips were not burned.  There was no empty bottle of carbolic acid to be found, but there was a bottle of chlorodyne, an opiate often used as a sleeping aid.  The reporter strongly suggested that "Pitt took an [accidentaloverdose in order to induce sleep."  The coroner never changed his report, however, and Pitt's memory was forever tainted by the suggestion of suicide.

Other theatrical figures in the house were Agnes Findlay, vaudeville entertainer B. Frank Bush and his wife, Cora Maud, and William Mack.  

Margaret Pitt was still living here in 1902 when her dramatic death scene in Camille was rudely interrupted.  On March 28, The Morning Telegraph explained, "She was alone and the stage was darkened.  Just as she remarked for the fiftieth time, 'Oh, if Armand were only here,' she cast her bewildered gaze upon the stage just aft the tormenter, and, there, to her horror, saw approaching quietly, but steadily, her sixty dollar feather boa."  When she realized that it was a rat causing the boa to move across the stage, she panicked.

"With a wild, unaffected scream, Margaret Pitt jumped out of the character, sprang upon the table and yelled for help...The audience noted the action of Miss Pitt and cheered wildly.  Being a New Jersey audience, they all thought it belonged to the play."  A stage hand kicked the rat into the orchestra, precipitating a riot.  "Men, women and children crushed each other in the wild scramble for safety, and the house was partially emptied, after which 'Camille' was dropped and the rest of the time filled in with specialties."

The article noted, "Miss Pitt is back in New York.  She could not cure her shattered nerves, and for the time being is indulging in bromides at her apartments, at 221 West Thirty-eighth street.  Her physician says that she is suffering severely from prostration of the nervous system."

For some reason the tenant list changed from actors to chauffeurs around 1904.  The residents over the next decade included John Ryan, Alfred Panier, George Theobold, Leon Lehereux (chauffeur to George Gould), and Eugene F. Aymar, all professional automobile drivers.

One resident not in the chauffeuring profession in 1916 was boxer Jean Constant, the French light-weight champion.  He set up a sort of gym in the basement and on March 23 offered to give a free boxing lesson to Michael Seranti, who worked in the kitchen.

For some reason the 18-year-old was carrying the equivalent of $240,000 today in cash and Panama Canal bonds in the pockets of his waistcoat.  He told a reporter later, "Constant and a friend he had there tried to make me take the waistcoat off, but I would not.  Then Constant knocked me out with a blow on the point of the jaw.  When I recovered consciousness both men were gone and so was my $10,000."

Constant was, of course, arrested.  But three days later he was released "because evidence of theft was lacking," according to The New York Press.  "The man who stole the money, it was said, wrote two letters clearing the fighter and returning $2,000 of the missing property."

John Couldis signed a 21-year lease on the building in August 1920.  The basement level became home to Schiavi's Italian Restaurant.  The change in what had been an elegant residential neighborhood became evident two years later, on August 25, 1922.

The New-York Tribune reported, "Ralph H. Oyler, director of the Government Narcotic Division, and three of his detectives won a hard fight with fifteen men in a spaghetti restaurant at 221 West Thirty-eighth Street early yesterday.  Four men were arrested on charges of selling heroin at $70 an ounce."

On August 29, 1957 The New York Times reported on "plans for modernizing 221 West Thirty-eighth Street, in the heart of the garment district."  The article noted, "It was vacated recently by Schiavi's Italian Restaurant, which had been there for thirty years and is going out of business."

The architectural firm of Sapolsky & Slobodian installed offices in the former parlor floor, and updated the step-down restaurant in the basement.  The Department of Buildings insisted that the upper floors "remain vacant."  That stipulation lasted until 1990 when another restaurant moved into the parlor level and the upper floors were converted to offices.

The bedraggled building--once one of the elegant homes of wealthy merchants along the block--is somewhat of an eyesore today.  And yet its patrician past is easily discerned behind the fire escapes and garish signage.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Ted Leather for requesting this post
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  1. Why would the DoB want to keep the upper floors vacant?

    1. Most likely the owner did not want to go to the cost of upgrading the plumbing, fire exits, etc. of the upper floors so legally no occupancy could occur.