Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Real West Side Story - the 1896 Flats at 347 West 37th Street


In the 1890's architect Louis Korn was busy designing numerous office and loft buildings in the Lower Fifth Avenue district.  But early in 1895 he took on a much different project.

The crime-ridden Hell's Kitchen neighborhood stretched approximately from 34th to 59th Street, and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River.  The New York Times called the area “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square inch in this part of New-York.”  

For years a three-story tenement had stood at 347 West 37th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.  Its tenants, like everyone else on the block, were Black.  Racial tensions among the impoverished residents of Hell's Kitchen ran high and Blacks were unofficially restricted from passing west of Ninth Avenue.  The 25-foot-wide tenement was sold in February 1895 and within a month developer John D. Karst, Jr., had hired Louis Korn to design a replacement.  

Korn's plans called for a five-story "brick and stone flat."  The cost of construction would be more than $635,000 today, but Karst most likely felt it was a solid investment.   Following a violent conflict between Black and white gangs in September 1897, a property owner told a reporter "The negroes pay their rents regularly, and many of the whites do not."

The completed building was designed in a quirky take on  the Renaissance Revival style.  The stone newels of the solid stone wing walls of the short stoop held squat cast iron lampposts.  The double-doored entrance was framed by paneled pilasters and an entablature upheld by graceful scrolled brackets.  Panels of undressed stone separated the openings of the upper floors.  The heavy lentils were decorated with delicate carvings and small, leafy brackets.  A pressed copper cornice ran along the roofline.

The apartments had either three or four rooms.  The modern building, however, did not necessarily improve the conduct of its tenants.  Among the first to move in was Maggie Faulks, who lived on the top floor.  Wilhelmina Henricks, the building's housekeeper, lived downstairs.  The women devised a means to make extra money.

On December 31, 1896 the New York Journal ran a front page article about a "school for thieves" being run by Black women.  A 14-year-old boy, Jacob Poore, had been caught trying to carry a rocking chair from the store of McClain, Simpson & Co. on 37th Street.  Furniture dealers often displayed samples on the sidewalk and for weeks Poore had loitered around stores, waiting for a chance to walk off with "chairs of all kinds, foot stools, pictures, and house ornaments," according to The Evening Telegram.

The women paid the boy for his plunder.  He told investigators, for instance, that Wilhelmina had paid him 60 cents for a $7 rocking chair and Maggie paid 50 cents for a $4 rug.  The women were arrested on charges of receiving stolen property.  Both insisted they had no idea the goods were stolen.

Another of the initial tenants was Charles N. Gloucester.  The young man was attempting to improve his lot.  While almost all of the other male residents were laborers, he was working as a law clerk.  But on March 15, 1896 he was sentenced to six months in the penitentiary for petty larceny.  "The crime charged against Gloucester," said The Evening Post, "was that on December 4, he called at the residence of Mrs. Emily Griswall...and stole a water pitcher."

There was one tenant who was not Black--"a little, undersized Mexican, rejoicing in the name of Carlos Castrono," as described by The New York Times on July 6, 1896.  He had a good reason to move onto the block.  The article said "The detectives say he is a man for whom they have been looking for some time, and that he has been swindling the colored people in this vicinity by claiming that he is a magic, or Voodoo, doctor."

Aware that his targets were ill-educated, too poor to seek quality medical attention, and often desperate, Castrono would promise to cure diseases.  His downfall came when he told Mahalla Jefferson that he was "a magic Mexican doctor."  He promised to cure her 10-year-old son, Leonard, who was dying from consumption (known today as tuberculosis).  

The $15 cure--a crippling $475 for the family--came in the form of a sealed envelope and a magic belt.  Under no circumstances was Mrs. Jefferson to open the packet, or the spell would not work.  But later, according to The New York Times, "Mrs. Jefferson chanced to meet some colored people, and they told her not to use the packet as directed, as Castrono was evidently a 'Voodoo' doctor, and if the medicine was used the boy would go to the infernal regions when he died."

Now suspicious, Mahalla opened the pack to find it was filled with folded tissue paper.  She and her daughter went out to track down the bogus doctor and get their money back.  They found him on Ninth Avenue, and he invited them to his rooms.  After walking about a block, he bolted.  "The women screamed and a crowd pursued Castrono and caught him after a run of several blocks," reported The New York Times.  It spelled the end of the voodoo doctor's Hell's Kitchen career.

The residents' names continued to appear in newspapers for all the wrong reasons.  On March 12, 1897 Eliza Johnson was arrested in a raid on a brothel.  Five days later the New York Herald announced the Emma Randolph had been arrested "on the charge of cutting John Eve, also colored, of No. 347 West Thirty-seventh street, with a razor."

William Price seems to have successfully avoided crime and violence.  The 29-year-old was described by The Sun as "a colored laborer."  He returned to his third floor apartment at around 11:00 on the night of May 15, 1897 and, according to the newspaper, "Feeling rather warm, he sat on the window sill."  After awhile he fell asleep and tumbled to the rear courtyard, striking his head.  Although he was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, he was not seriously injured.

In 1904 construction started on the "Pennsylvania Tunnel" under the Hudson River.  It would provide direct rail access from New Jersey to Pennsylvania Station.  Frederick James worked on the project as a driller.  He shared his apartment at 347 West 37th Street with "Winifred de Fosta, his common law wife," as described by The Sun.

On Saturday night, May 25, 1907, there was a birthday party in the building.  Also in attendance was another driller, named Jesus.  The Sun reported, "There was plenty to drink and Jesus soon began to talk of some trouble that he had had with a foreman on the tunnel job.  He pulled out a revolver and declared that he was going to kill to the foreman.  James took the revolver away and kicked Jesus out into the street."

Later that evening, James saw Jesus "lurking in a hallway across the street," and told Winifred he "reckoned [Jesus] meant trouble."  James had no idea how much trouble the other driller had in mind.  When the couple left their apartment not long afterward, Jesus was waiting in ambush in the hallway.  He shot James through the stomach.  As Frederick James died on the hallway floor, Jesus fled.

The Sun reported, "The 'black block' between Eighth and Ninth avenues on Thirty-seventh street hummed like an angry beehive after the shooting, and the reserves had to be called out to preserve order."

Tenants at the time of the murder were paying rents from $16 to $20 a month.  The higher amount would equal about $568 per month today.  Landlords, almost all of whom were white, could charge the high rates simply because their Black tenants had little choice of where they could live.

A highly-publicized incident occurred on July 1, 1911.  John W. Collins, who had no job, lived with Georgianna Anderson, a wash woman.  Collins was known in the building and the neighborhood in general as a worthless drunk, "who has been living on the money a woman earned over the washtub," according to The Sun.

Around daylight on July 1, he came home drunk looking for more money.  "Tumbling into his own flat on the second floor rear, he shook Georgianna's shoulder, hit her in the face when she was slow to awake and threatened to kill her if she didn't give him money," said the newspaper.  She gave him all she had, the $4 she had been holding for the rent.

On the way out of the building, Collins bumped into Maggie Jones, "a little yellow woman with a temper.  She slapped his face."  Collins responded to the insult by pulling out a pistol and shooting at her.  "Maggie Jones scudded into the street and shook Hell's Kitchen with her screams," said The Sun.  Collins returned to the apartment.  Georgianna hid in the kitchen where she could hear him "mumbling to himself and gurgling gin as he lay on the bed."

Before long Collins took out his pistol and began firing at the pictures Georgianna had hung on the wall.  She cracked the bedroom door and asked him to be quiet.  "A bullet smashed through the door a foot above her head.  The woman dropped flat on the floor frightened half to death," reported The Sun.  Collins went to the window and began shooting wildly into the street.

A group of policemen nearby rushed to the scene.   A young boy told them he thought "Johnny Collins was killing his wife" and directed them to the apartment.  Officer Michael Lynch was the first to enter.  He knew Collins well and had several times in the past tried to help him.  He told his fellow officers, "when he sees me I am sure he will quiet down."

Lynch took one step into the apartment and Collins fired his pistol.  The bullet entered Lynch's head just over the eye.  "Lynch collapsed in the doorway, dead by the time his head met the floor," said the article.

Collins bolted past the stunned policemen and up the stairs to the roof.  Twenty minutes after Lynch's murder there were 100 policemen ringing the block, making a house-to-house search.  Collins was finally found under a bed in a third-floor room at 306 West 37th Street.  The Sun reported, "The street was solidly packed with negroes and whites, who broke over the police lines and pressed noisily against the policemen and their prisoner."  

The mob tried to seize Collins from the police, but they were able to keep them back by using their clubs all the way to the station house.   The newspaper said, "Feelings were at a fever height and, recalling the many clashes which had taken place in the past between the white and Negro residents of this neighborhood, it was feared that when the news of Lynch's death was learned a terrible race riot would result."

At the station house, according to police, Collins "appeared to be stupidly drunk" and told investigators that he could not remember what had happened.  And that was Collins's defense during this trial--that he remembered nothing.  He was found guilty and on August 16, 1911 The Evening Telegram ran the headline, "Negro Who Shot Policeman Must Pay With Life."

Over the years there were numerous complaints from residents about startling and sometimes violent police abuse.  The abuse seems to have gone both ways, however.

On March 18, 1910 Violet Brown, a resident of 347 West 37th Street, was loitering on 26th Street.  Patrolman Michael Gavegan ordered her to "move on."  Enraged, Violet rushed up the stoop of a house to get a strategic, elevated vantage point, then kicked the officer several times in the head, breaking his jaw.  Two passersby "overpowered the woman," and took her to the police station.

Patrolman James McGinnis was on his post at 37th Street and Eighth Avenue early in the morning of April 22, 1926.  A woman rushed up saying that the restaurant at 331 West 37th Street was being robbed.  As McGinnis approached the restaurant, 25-year-old Dominick Marolli, another resident of 347 West 37th Street, ran out followed closely by its owner, Peter Makey.

Although Marolli put up a fight, he "was subdued with the policeman's nightstick," according to The New York Sun.  But on the way to the station house, the prisoner's father, John Marolli, and a teenaged boy appeared.  "The elder Marolli drew a knife, according to the patrolman, and then the two newcomers and his prisoner turned upon him," said the article.   The tense situation for the policeman eventually ended with all three being arrested on charges of felonious assault.

By mid-century the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood saw fewer Blacks and more Hispanic residents.  But the violence and racial tensions continued, with Puerto Rican gangs, like the Vampires, waging war with Italian and Irish gangs.  The conditions were vividly portrayed in Leonard Bernstein's play West Side Story in which teenaged boys carried deadly weapons and fought hand-to-hand combat in pre-determined "rumbles."

But the West 37th Street block was, as well, being engulfed by the expanding Garment District.  Closer to Eighth Avenue loft buildings replaced the old tenement houses.  In 1999 347 West 37th Street was converted to Fountain House, a non-profit rehabilitation "clubhouse" for people with serious mental illness.  An architecturally bland sixth floor was added at the same time, while surprisingly preserving the copper cornice.

Other than the penthouse and replacement windows, Louis Korn's 125-year-old tenement is remarkably unchanged.  One of only a few relics on the block from a time of violence, poverty and misery.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Ted Leather for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

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