Friday, October 29, 2021

The Robert J. Hunter House - 349 West 30th Street


By 1853 the family of Robert J. Hunter lived in the three-story house at 223 West 30th Street (renumbered 349 in 1868), erected about a decade earlier.  It and its mirror image neighbor at 225 shared a 27-foot-wide plot that would have held a single residence in other parts of the city.  Despite its narrow width, the house displayed the up-to-date elements of the newly popular Italianate style.

The entrance featured handsome carved, paneled doors, rope carving and an ample transom.  It originally sat below an Italianate pediment supported on brackets.  Molded cornices originally graced the openings.  Above it all was a handsome pressed metal cornice with foliate brackets and ornamented frieze.

The 20th century modernizations to the building thankfully left the wonderful doors and rope carving intact.

It is unclear what Hunter's profession was, but he listed his annual income in 1866 at $24,520--a tidy $412,000 in today's money.  And he was prominent enough that in 1862 he served as treasurer of the committee to erect a statue of DeWitt Clinton in Central Park.

Sharing the house was Hunter's son and daughter-in-law, Joel D. and Frances Hunter.  The couple had married on January 17, 1844.  In 1854 Joel was taken into partnership in the "butter, cheese and lard" firm of Jay L. Adams & Co. on Greenwich Street.

In 1860 Robert J. Hunter moved to Pierrepont Street in fashionable Brooklyn Heights.  The West 30th Street house became home to the Johnston Knight family.

Johnston listed his profession as a clerk at the time--a nebulous term that ranged from a low-paid shop helper to a highly-responsible accountant.  He and his wife, the former Sarah Hill Quin, would have eight children.

Tragedy struck on July 5, 1868 when the couple's one year old son, Thomas Hamilton, died.  His funeral was held in the parlor two days later.  Another funeral would be held there six years later.  The Knights' eldest daughter, 15 year old Jane Hill, died on November 2, 1874 and, as had been the case with Thomas, her casket sat in the parlor for two days until her funeral.

A year later Sarah Knight visited her parents at 16 West 9th Street.  It appears she went into labor there, and died in childbirth on October 14.  Her body was not brought home to the West 30th Street house, but instead her funeral was held in her parents' parlor on October 16.

Johnston was now the single father of six children--14 year old Mary Ann; Joseph Patrick, who was 12; 10 year old Johnston, Jr.; 6 year old Sophia Hamilton; William Thomas, who was 3; and the newborn Peter Regan.

By 1882 Johnston had changed careers, now in the plumbing business at 8 West 4th Street.   He would endure the funerals of two more children in the 30th Street house.  Little Peter Regan, died at 6 years old on March 18, 1882, and Johnston, Jr. died six years later.

Almost every house of the period had a small building in the rear yard--either a smaller house for income purposes, a stable, or a workshop.  In 1886 Johnston was renting his rear building to the young sculptor Rupert Schmidt for his studio.

Born in Bavaria in 1864, Schmidt had arrived in the United States only a year earlier.  He later relocated to San Francisco where he was praised as one of that city's foremost artists.

It appears that by 1891 only Knight's two unmarried daughters, Sophia and Mary, were still living at home.  By 1894 they were taking in a boarder, Charles Knapp.  The erudite scholar, who received his Ph.D. in 1890, was a philologist--or expert in the history of languages--and professor of Latin at Columbia College.

Johnston Knight needed the income from a boarder.  He was facing pressure from Joseph E. Mount for back mortgage payments at the time.  Unfortunately, it was not enough and Knight lost his home of more than 35 years in foreclosure on April 6, 1895.  The house sold at auction for $10,000--about $320,000 today--to Sarah T. Haller, the widow of George F. Haller.

Moving in with their mother were John H., Christiana I., Edwin and Nellie G.  The family had barely settled in when Sarah died on August 12, 1896 at the age of 59.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, John H. Haller joined the Company K of the 71st United States Volunteers.  Troops fighting in Cuba were soon dying not from the wounds of battle, but of illness, including typhoid fever.  The Haller family was surprised to read a newspaper report on August 19, 1898 that John was among the sick soldiers who had been transported from Cuba to Camp Wikoff at Montauk Point, Long Island.

The family tried repeatedly to be given permission to visit the Camp hospital--through telegraph, letters and five trips to the 71st Regiment Armory.  Finally, that permission came, but what Christiana and her siblings found there was devastating.  She later wrote:

Finally we found my brother lying in an unconscious condition, from which it was utterly impossible to rouse him, and the nurse said that he had been in this state for six days previous.  Both the doctor in charge of the ward and this nurse told us, without any reserve, that his condition was more the result of starvation than disease, and that such was the case with the rest of the soldiers there under treatment.

The humiliation of the soldier went further.  Christiana's complaint to the Chief Quartermaster of Volunteers, Lt. Colonel F. B. Jones, continued:

He died the next day, August 24, at 11:30 p.m...and his body was removed to the deadhouse clad only in an undershirt, and it was in this condition when my oldest brother and the undertaker came for the body.  Had not the undertaker been provided with a winding sheet, there would have been no covering for him in which to be placed in the coffin.

John's was the latest in a long string of funerals in the West 30th Street house.  But when the family requested a military escort to the cemetery, they were "flatly refused on the ground that [Saturday] was pay day in the camp, and no soldier would be permitted to be absent."  Christiana wrote, "Consequently my poor brother not only sacrificed his life in the service of his country, but was also deprived of his right of an escort of his comrades to his last resting place."

At the time of the tragedy, Edwin Haller was a teacher in the Free Academy of the City of New York.  When Sarah Haller died, he and his siblings had received equal shares in the West 30th Street property.  But trouble within the family seems to have begun in 1900 and by early 1901 had become untenable.  Christiana, named "Chrissie" in court papers, sued the others on April 1, 1901.  The court referee, C. W. West, ordered the sale of 349 West 30th Street on March 7.

By 1923 it was being operated as a rooming house.  Living there that year was 24 year old Joseph Roseblock, who made his living as a short-order cook in a restaurant on Broadway and 47th Street.

On the morning of January 18 that year James Barbarusis and his wife walked into the restaurant for breakfast.  Barbarusis owned a restaurant on Sherman Avenue in the Bronx.  Three years earlier a cook had stolen a $100 Liberty Bond and $45 in cash from the restaurant and disappeared.

As the couple sat at their table, a waiter cried out, "Ham and eggs!"  The order was repeated from the kitchen, "Ham and eggs."  Unbelievably, Barbarusis thought he recognized the voice from three years ago.  The Daily News reported, "Barbarusis also ordered ham and eggs to ascertain recognition of the voice.  When the echo came again, he was satisfied and went out and brought a detective."  Joseph Roseblock's distinctive voice landed him in jail for the earlier robbery.

Hugh McNelis rented a room here the following year.  The 50-year-old became despondent that spring.  He decided to end it all by going to the lake in Corona Park in Flushing and drowning himself.  But McNelis could not have anticipated the heroics of a 15 year old high school student, Frank Aidala.  Hugh jumped into the lake on April 25, 1924, followed closely by the teen.  Frank hauled McNelis out and he was taken to Flushing Hospital "suffering from immersion," according to the Newtown Register.

By 1943, 349 West 30th Street was home to the Izzo family.  Lucy Izzo speculated in real estate, buying and selling commercial properties.

Anthony Izzo was still a teenager when he took the job as chauffeur for Martin Hessikiel, a wealthy fur dealer.  He was driving Hessikiel along the Merritt Parkway on Saturday night, September 25, 1945 when the car was forced over.  Hessikiel was "slugged and robbed," according to The New York Sun, the highwaymen getting away with $13,000 worth of furs--a substantial $187,000 by today's terms.

Izzo, who was 19 years old at the time, was questioned.  His story began to fall apart and under pressure he confessed to his part in the conspiracy and identified the two others, 18 year old John Carratella and 21 year old Daniel Gezzi.

The parlor window most likely matched that of its former twin next door.

A 2000 renovation resulted in two duplex apartments in the narrow house.   The 20th century was not especially kind to the vintage residence.  The parlor window was shortened, the lintels shaved flat, the entrance pediment was removed and the transom painted over, and the red brick was given a coat of mint green paint.  And still the charm of the early Italianate style house survives.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment