Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Owen W. Brennan House - 156 West 15th Street


By 1855 broker Morris DeYoung and his wife lived in the comfortable brick-faced house at No. 120 West 15th Street (renumbered 156 in 1860).  Theirs was one of a row of Italianate houses completed a few years earlier on the south side of the block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  Each of the identical, 20-foot wide residences was three stories tall above an English basement.  The parlor floor windows extended to the floor, suggesting they originally opened onto a cast iron balcony.  Pretty foliate panels filled the spaces between the brackets of the pressed metal cornices.

While it was common for families to take in roomers or boarders, the DeYoungs 
seemed to have been nearly unusually desperate to do so.  Mrs. DeYoung placed an ad in the New York Herald on January 9, 1856 which read, "A lady, who occupies a house too large for her necessities, would like to dispose of some rooms to single gentlemen."  (Why she worded the ad to sound as if she were widowed or single is puzzling.)

The ad apparently did not produce results and a month later Mrs. DeYoung changed her strategy:

A lady of very superior education and capacity for imparting instruction, and who is permitted to refer to persons of the highest standing as to her worth and attainments, wishes to take into her family, a few young ladies, whose entire education she will superintend.

Another ad in May noted that in addition to an education, the young ladies would be surrounded "with home influences and comforts."

When the boarding school idea apparently did not work out, Morris placed a rather peculiar ad in the New York Herald on September 11, 1857:  "Board--A Lady Invalid can be accommodated with board and nursing, and every requisite attendance.  No other boarders or children...Address M. D., 120 West Fifteenth street, New York."

It seems that the DeYoungs were in financial straits.  Only a few weeks later, on November 1, they offered, essentially, the entire house for rent, other than space for themselves:  

To Let--Unfurnished, to a very small, quiet and unobtrusive family only, for $130, in advance for six months, the parlor, alcove and tea room (entire parlor floor), dormitory and ante room, on bathroom floor; rooms on upper floor, with privilege in kitchen, vault, &c.  Hot and cold water, bell and register in each room.  Occupant has no children or boarders.  A rare opportunity for a suitable party desiring the exclusiveness of an entire house.

The mention of  bells and registers referred to the servants' call bells, and the floor registers that allowed heat to rise throughout the house from the basement furnace.

The DeYoungs either soon sold their home or lost it in foreclosure.  By the following spring it was owned by D. S. Barnes who advertised it for rent in April, describing it as a "three story, high stoop, genteel modern house."

He found a tenant in a Dr. Dubois who ran the house as a sort of women's hospital.  An advertisement in April 1858 was entitled "Important To Females" and coaxed, "Diseases of females exclusively treated by Dr. Dubois."  For between $1 and $5 ($160 for the most expensive today) he guaranteed "remedies for Female Derangements."  Patients who traveled to the city were offered "board, nursing and exclusive attendance."  (The advertisements worrisomely hinted at abortions.)

The doctor's residency was short-lived.  By 1860 No. 156 West 15th Street was being operated as a boarding house.  Among the residents that year were Swedish immigrants G. Berggvist and his wife, Margaret.  Other boarders within the next few years included Isaac I. Lazarus, who dealt in "showcards;" Joseph Lyons, a commission agent; and physician Charles Salmon.

The boarders enjoyed upscale surroundings.  An inventory in 1866 showed a seven-octave piano in the parlor, oil paintings, and "elegant" parlor furniture.  

The list was compiled because the house was being sold that year.  It was purchased by Owen W. Brennan and his wife, the former Mary E. O'Connor, and, finally, there would be a long-term resident.

Mary was his second wife.  His first, Margaret Horn Brennan, had died in 1848, just months after the deaths of two of their sons, James Timothy and William Troutman, in 1847.

The 15th Street house would be tightly populated.  There were three sons, John, Winfield Scott, Charles M., and three daughters, Annie W., Isabel Hazel, and Louise.

Brennan was born on November 1, 1814.  His father, Timothy, had fought in the War of 1812.  Owen Brennan had started out his career in the liquor business, but turned to public service when Mayor Fernando Wood appointed him Captain of Police of the 6th Precinct.  His career soared.  Three years later he was elected Police Magistrate; in 1862 he resigned to run for City Controller and was elected; and in 1865 he was appointed a Commissioner of Charities and Correction.  

It was almost assuredly Brennan who updated and enlarged the house by adding a stylish mansard roof with arched dormers.  In addition to his other positions, he was an Officer of The Central Park, vice-president of the Guardian Savings Bank, a director in the North and East River Railroad Company, and a manager of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum.

The house was the scene of Annie's marriage to Charles O'Connor on January 5, 1869 with, according to the Evening Telegram, "a number of their friends and relatives being present."

When the Guardian Savings Bank failed in 1871 The New York Times placed the blame upon its directors.  The fact that the president was one of the newspaper's most scorned personages was likely a factor.  It began its article on January 13, 1872 saying:

Would it not be well for some eminent whitewasher to exercise his art on the northern wall of the late lamented Guardian Savings Bank, in Chatham-street?  All who come down the Bowery see the names of this swindling concern and its managers staring them in the face.  Why perpetuate, as on a monument of brass, the names of 'William M. Tweed, President, and Walter Roche and Owen W. Brennan, Vice-Presidents'?

As a matter of fact, Brennan was closely involved with the Tweed Ring.  The Guardian Savings Bank had been a sort of piggy bank for high ranking Tweed officials.  (When the bank failed Jeremiah Quinlan disappeared "to evade jail," according to The New York Times.)  For years Owen Brennan had been the president of the Blossom Club, a political and social club for Tweed politicians and citizens.

When Brennan stepped down as president of the Blossom Club on May 12, 1883 after 19 years, he was given a glittering reception.  The New York Times reported that he was presented with "a large crayon portrait of himself, handsomely framed and elaborately inscribed."  Among those honoring Brennan were Senator T. F. Grady, Congressman John J. Adams, two judges and a raft of high-ranking public officials and politicians.  The New York Times noted "The club-rooms were profusely decorated with flowers."

Brennan's giving up his position after nearly two decades may have had much to do with his health.  By now he had been retired for some time and was suffering from malaria.  On the afternoon of October 28, 1884, according to The New York Times, he was seized with a congestive chill and died in an hour."  He was 71 years old.

The newspaper went on to say "for many years Mr. Brennan has been out of politics, and has been living quietly at his home in Fifteenth-street."  His funeral was held in the parlor on October 31, followed by a mass at the nearby Church of St. Francis Xavier.

Mary and the unmarried children lived on in the house.  On November 7, 1888 Louise was married to H. S. Provost in the parlor, and on April 22, 1891 it was the scene of Isabel Hazel's marriage to Edgar S. Weed.  In reporting on Isabel's wedding, The World mentioned "The house was beautifully decorated with roses, lilies, tulips and palms."

Mary E. Brennan died on November, 13, 1895 at the age of 65.  None of the Brennan heirs moved into the family home and it sat vacant for a considerable time--eventually drawing the attention of crooks. 

On August 2, 1898 the New York Herald reported "Five burglars were caught at work in the vacant house No. 156 West Fifteenth street yesterday afternoon, and after a desperate fight with two policemen, during which three of the burglars escaped, two were taken to the West Thirtieth street station."  Neighbors had noticed men coming and going from the basement door throughout the afternoon and notified a patrolman.

He and another policeman entered the basement and ascended to the parlor floor where they "discovered five men sitting around a table, upon which was a can of beer and several cups from which they drank."  They had managed to do severe damage to the residence.  "The police found that all of the brasswork in the house, gas fixtures and lead pipe had been cut away and removed, and that the woodwork had been chopped into with an axe and badly damaged.  Apparently the wood was chopped up for fuel, as several bags of it had been removed."

The vandalism was apparently a wake up call for the Brennan family.  In June 1899 Charles, as executor of his mother's estate, sold the house to Emil Bachman for $15,600--just under a half a million in today's dollars.  Bachman did hasty reparations and within a month a Mrs. Kaftan was operating the residence as a rooming house.

Among her first tenants was 27 year old F. Taylor Maus.  He had barely moved in when he appeared in the Coney Island and Police Court on July 14, charging David Sloan with assault.  Sloan was the brother and trainer of well-known jockey Tod Sloan.  According to Maus, "in a row in a Coney Island saloon Sloan struck him in the mouth with a chair and knocked out several of his teeth."

Another resident, Frederick Manning, appeared in a Coney Island courtroom the following year.  The 30-year-old was arrested by an over-zealous cop involved in a a "roundup" of "pickpockets who have been reaping a rich harvest of watches and plethoric pocketbooks" among the crowds, according to The Evening Telegram on July 19, 1900.  Among those he arrested was the 30-year-old Manning who, "although he protested that he was a businessman of this city, he was locked up all night."  The policeman's mistake was revealed in court the next morning and Manning was released.

Agnes Reed was renting a room here in 1901.  Her mother, Mary O'Donnell, traveled from Chicago on March 21 with $6,000 alimony she had received from Agnes's former husband, and took a room next door to her daughter.   It was not long before Mary became concerned about a man, John Murray, who had been wooing Agnes.  The back alimony she had brought would equal about $186,000 today alone and she feared Murray was after the 26-year-old's money.

Three days after Mary arrived, Murray appeared at No. 156 West 15th Street and sent a note up to Agnes asking her to meet him on the corner "as soon as possible."  But it was intercepted by Mary, instead.  After he had waited for some time, Murray returned to the house and asked Mrs. Kaftan when Agnes would be down.

"You can go upstairs and see her mother," he was told.

"No, thank you," he answered, and hurried away.

Later another boarder, Mrs. Walters, walked into Agnes's room to visit.  The Morning Telegram reported she entered "just in time to catch the divorcee, who was about to leap out of the window.  The rescuer watched Mrs. Reed for the remainder of the day."

Agnes disappeared two days later.  On March 29 The Morning Telegram reported she was still missing after four days and detectives were searching for her.  The article said her mother "fears she will be induced to marry an ardent suitor while in an irresponsible condition."  She told a reporter "The poor girl is not in full possession of her senses and may fall a victim to a designing fortune seeker if not returned to my keeping speedily."

Another divorcee, Ida Guild, had moved into rooms with her two children a month before Agnes Reed's drama played out.   She and Charles S. Guide had been married in Boston 14 years earlier.  A magazine writer, he left his family and moved to Brooklyn where he remarried (before bothering with the technicalities of a divorce from Ida).  Ida came to Manhattan to attempt to obtain support for herself and the children, but ended up in court defending against Charles's attempts to gain custody over the children.  She, at least initially, was successful in retaining custody.

In 1906 attorney John Bird Quinton purchased the house.  He was the head of the American Law & Claim Investigating Agency and a commissioner of deeds.   He made substantial alterations to the house, transforming the basement level to a restaurant and café.  

Quinton took in a single boarder, Edward Thurston Hiscox, in 1907, who had graduated from Yale University three years earlier.  Like his landlord, Hiscox was an attorney and would remain with Quinton at least through 1919, by which time he was a member of the law firm Gray & Hiscox.

The stoop was gone by 1941.  The architect deftly copied the original lintels to create a window where the entrance had been.  via the NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services

At some point before 1940 the stoop was removed and the entrance moved to the basement level.  It was not until 1997 that a renovation resulted in official apartments--three on the former parlor level and two each on the upper floors.

The address received significant press coverage in 2018 when the city's Office of Special Enforcement sued Dr. Philip Baldeo and Miguel Guzman for "illegal hotel use."  The charges claimed the pair had rented six of the nine units to tourists over a three-year period.  

Although the Brennan house is in remarkable shape above the commercial space, a recent real estate listing suggested replacing it with a modern apartment building--even offering a proposed rendering.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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