Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The 1833 Samuel Phillips House - 226 West 13th Street

The first city in the United States to install gas street lamps was Newport, Rhode Island, in 1803.  It would be another two decades before New York City began replacing oil lamps with gas.  The much more efficient gas street lights, however, still required lamplighters--the men who lit them at dusk and extinguished them at dawn.  It was not always a pleasant job.  The lamps had to be lit and extinguished no matter how foul the weather.

Samuel Phillips was a lamplighter in 1833 when his new home at 158 West 13th Street (later renumbered 226) between Greenwich and Seventh Avenues was completed.  Two-and-a-half stories tall, the 20-foot wide home was faced in Flemish bond brick.  A short stoop led to the entrance and a dormer punched through the peaked roof.  In the rear yard, as was common, was a secondary, smaller house (which survives today).

It is unclear how long Phillips remained in the house.  By 1847 William B. Jehff, a hatter, lived here.  Also listed at the address was Christina Parsons, the widow of Sylvanus Parsons, who most likely lived in the rear house.

In 1853 Julia Cleland moved into 226 West 13th Street with two her adult daughters, Rebecca H.  and Margaret.  Julia was the widow of Charles Cleland, who died in 1841.  Her three other daughters, Eliza, Sarah and Julia, were married.  Rebecca made her living as a dressmaker and Margaret was a teacher in Public School No. 20.  

It is unclear whether Julia was hearing impaired, but she was highly involved with St. Ann's Church for Deaf-Mutes.  On April 19, 1856 the New-York Daily Tribune reported, "Several deaf-mute ladies, with others interested in the success of St. Ann's Church, have in contemplation a Fair, to be held about the 1st of June, for the benefit of the Building Fund."  The article noted that donations could be sent to "Mrs. Cleland, No. 158 West Thirteenth street."

The house was the scene of the funeral of Julia's 6-year-old granddaughter, Agnes Davidson Tatem on March 17, 1854.   The little girl's father, Captain J. Tatem, had previously died.  

Julia and her daughter left West 13th Street in 1865.  It became home to Edward R. Sommerkorn and his wife, Augusta.  Living with the couple was Augusta's brother, Andrew Giebelhausen, a musician.

Sommerkorn had served as a captain in the 175th Regiment of Infantry during the Civil War and was discharged on July 4, 1863.  He was now a well-to-do insurance broker with offices on Broadway.  The Sommerkorns slightly updated the house with a new Italianate cornice.

The year the Sommerkorns moved in they advertised "a neatly furnished parlor" and a "small furnished room" to let.  The rents were $6 and $8 per week respectively (the more expensive being about $130 today).  An employee of Edward, Herman Siedenburg, took one of the rooms.  The 24-year-old found himself in court on September 5, 1866 "on the charge of having stolen a quantity of cigars valued at $500, from Mr. Edward L. Sommerkorn," said the New York Herald.

It was no small theft.  The cigars would be valued at more than $8,000 in today's money.  Also in the courtroom that day was Augusta, who testified that "she saw the prisoner take [the cigars] from the residence of her husband."

Renting accommodations (possibly the rear house) from the Sommerkorns in the early 1870's were Colonel James E. Kerrigan and his wife, Mary Elizabeth.   Mary fell seriously ill in 1872 and was unable to recover.  She died on December 7 at the age of 36.  Her funeral was held in the parlor of the main house on December 9.

At the time, trouble was brewing between Edward and Augusta over his drinking.  When it became intolerable, Augusta kicked him out.  On August 26, 1875 The Evening Telegram reported, "For some time past she has refused to live with Mr. Sommerhorn on account of his intemperance, and has supported herself by renting furnished rooms."  After trying unsuccessful to convince Augusta to take him back, Edward resorted to retaliation.

"On Monday last Mr. Sommerhorn...employed a deputy marshal and stripped the house of its furniture, leaving the lodgers to sleep on bare floors."  In turn, Augusta sued her husband to recover the furniture.  The Evening Telegram reported she also initiated "a suit under the Civil Damage law against the liquor dealer with whom her husband deals."

Edward Sommerkorn died on May 23, 1892 at the age of 71.  It does not appear that the two ever reconciled.  Augusta retained possession of the 13th Street house, which continued to see a succession of boarders.

In the mid-1890's, for instance, the tenants included George Decker, a clerk; Madame. Chevalier, a dressmaker who charged $2.50 per day for "tailor made gowns;" and a young couple, the Ferniers.  Realizing her baby was on the way on November 27, 1897, Josephine Fernier boarded a streetcar headed to the Sloane Maternity Hospital.  But she had left too late.  The New York Herald reported "at an early hour yesterday morning [she] gave birth to a child in a Ninth avenue car, at Fifty-ninth street and Ninth avenue."

Augusta Sommerkorn took in a new boarder, Horton Sumner, in 1906.  His name was, in truth, Perrin H. Sumner, described by The Wichita Eagle as "the grizzly-haired ex-convict."  The New York Times noted that he was "at one time known as the 'Great American Identifier.'"

The Wichita newspaper said he "has been arrested many times on charges which include swindling, forgery and subornation of perjury, and who, in June 1897, was sentenced to six years at hard labor in Sing Sing prison for grand larceny."  But, of course, Augusta was unaware of any of this.

Sumner set his sights on Augusta's substantial estate, much of which was tied up in real estate.  The Eagle said, "Her relatives allege that in addition to her real estate she owned jewelry and paintings of considerable value."

Half her age, he wooed the aging widow, little-by-little convincing her to transfer property to his name.  On March 9, 1907 she transferred Florida real estate to his name  for the documented price of $1.00.   Two months later she transferred the deed to Bronx real estate to Arthur Ewing Sumner, Perrin's son.

The con-man was determined to get the last cent of Augusta's estate.  The New York Times reported that on June 14, 1907 he "married Mrs. Sommerkorn, who was 75 years old and ill in bed at the time.   Ten days later the old woman died...As she died without a will and without children, Sumner, as her husband, took her estate, which is said to be valuable."

Frederick R. Giebelhausen, who had initially lived with the Sommerkorns in the West 13th Street house, was now living in New Jersey.  In March 1908 he began actions to set aside all the deeds of the properties which his sister had transferred to Sumner.

The West 13th Street was sold to Meta C. Woods in 1908.  It continued to be a boarding house.  In 1926 both it and the rear house were renovated into rooming houses.  It as no doubt at this time that the stoop was removed and the dormer replaced with a large studio window.  The Department of Buildings noted that "not more than 15 sleeping rooms" were permitted in either structure.

The vintage house appeared threatened in 1946 when real estate operator Fred Sandblom purchased the property directly behind it at 102 Greenwich Avenue, "and the abutting three-story building at 226 West 13th street, with a three-story house in the rear," as reported by The New York Sun on May 14.

But if Sandblom had visions of a modern structure on the site, it never came to pass.  A monochromatic coat of barn red paint covers the brick, the brownstone, and the cornice today, making the venerable house easily overlooked.  

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

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