Friday, November 26, 2021

The 1829 Gerardus Riker House - 653 Washington Street


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Greenwich Village experienced a burst of construction in the 1820's.  Well-to-do merchant Samuel Norsworthy joined the trend in 1829 by erecting three speculative homes at 651 through 655 Washington Street.  Like its identical neighbors, 653 was three-and-a-half stories tall and clad in Flemish bond brick.  The Federal design included short stoops, brownstone trim and two prominent dormers at the attic level.

It is probable that Norsworthy never saw the completion of his project.  He died in 1829 and the houses became the property of his widow, Frances.  She first leased 653 Washington Street to the Gerardus Riker, listed in directories as a wood inspector.  Living with him was the widow Elizabeth Riker, almost assuredly his mother; and Gerardus U. Riker, most likely his son.  The latter Gerardus, who ran a porterhouse, remained in the house only a year.

Elizabeth disappeared from the directories in 1832, suggesting she died.  Gerardus left the Washington Street house two years later.

Around 1839, it became home to Hiram Burdette and his wife Louisa.  Burdett was a maker of chairs and  cabinetry.  It is possible that his shop was in a building in the rear yard.  He and Louisa had several children (documents range from five to ten).  Burdett was politically active and in 1842 was selected as a delegate of the Ninth Ward to the Democratic Whig convention.

Despite the large population in 653 Washington Street, the family took in boarders.  In 1847 Michael McGover, a coal merchant, and the Rev. Francis Gailey lived with the Burdetts.   
By 1847 Hiram, Jr. was working as a carter, or driver of a delivery wagon.   His sister, Hester, was married to Levi Pawling on February 28, 1850 in St. Luke's Church, a few blocks away on Hudson Street.

That year Hiram Burdett was appointed an Inspector of Elections, a position he would hold through 1855.  His civic involvement continued and in 1855 he was made a District Marshal "for the taking of the census."

The Burdetts left 653 Washington Street in 1856.  Shoemaker Adam Lammer, who had lived with the family since 1851, continued living here, as did Rev. Gailey, who would remain through 1857.   

It could be that Catharine Hoffman was running 653 Washington Street as a boarding house by 1862.   She was the widow of John Hoffman, and operating a boarding house was one of the few respectable means by which a single woman could make a living.  Along with Adam Lammer, living here that year were George Anson and Charles Misterle, both coopers, or barrel makers; carman Timothy Butler; and Patrick King, a driver.

Around 1867 a shop space was installed on the first floor.  It was home to the shoe and boot store of Adam Laurence.  (Adam Lammer was still living here, and so it is possible he worked with Laurence.)   Laurence displayed some of his wares in front of the store, a situation that was far too tempting for John Wallace on February 20, 1868.  The thief grabbed "a quantity of boots," according to the New York Evening Express, and ran.  Unfortunately for him, Adam Laurence could run faster.  On February 25 the newspaper reported, "Laurence testified that on giving chase to the prisoner the latter dropped the boots and struck him a smart blow on the mouth.  He was sent to the Penitentiary for six months."

Frances Norsworthy died in 1863 and her estate sold the Washington Street houses to attorney Levi A. Lockwood in 1877.  He leased 853 to Francois Gros, described by The New York Times as "a well-known French wine-dealer."  Gros remodeled the house and opened it as the Hotel Transatlantique in February 1878.  Initially, the little hotel did well, due greatly to its location just north of the busy Christopher Street pier.

But Gros suffered from alcoholism.  The New York Times noted that he "formerly carried on an extensive wine business in Thompson-street, but it dwindled when he became a confirmed inebriate."   He seemed to have overcome his drinking, but a few months after opening the hotel, he relapsed.  On August 8, 1878 The New York Times wrote, "Becoming desperate in regard to his uncontrollable habit and its attendant misfortunes, he grew more and more reckless and on Tuesday was utterly delirious from dissipation."

The following day, while Gros's wife was at the market, he "went behind his bar and drank a great quantity of Rhine wine and seltzer."  The bartender, Paul Maurice, saw Gros take a revolver from the money drawer and take it upstairs, but thought nothing of it.  When Mrs. Gros returned home, she found her husband on the floor with a bullet wound in the temple.  An ambulance was called, but there was nothing the doctors could do and Gros died later that afternoon.

A few months after the grisly incident, Lockwood sold the property to Francis and Ellen Garagher, who lived nearby at 52 Morton Street.  Among their tenants in 1880 was Rosa Hackett who was nearly the victim of a terrifying case of a drugstore's negligence.

One block away, at 679 Greenwich Street, was the pharmacy of J. Brophy.   On the morning of December 7 that year it was in charge of a clerk, J. J. Henderson.  He went out to get breakfast, leaving the elderly porter, William Wittenbrink, to watch over the store.  In the meantime, Rosa Hackett sent her 15-year-old daughter, Johanna, to buy 5 cents' worth of Rochelle salts (a laxative).

The Sun reported that Wittenbrink "took the girl's money and gave her, from a large bottle, some white powder which he said was Rochelle salts.  Mrs. Hacket dissolved a portion of the powder in a glass of water and drank it.  In a few moments she felt a sharp burning in her mouth and throat, and became alarmed."  Rosa sent for a doctor, who immediately diagnosed poisoning and gave her a preparation that induced vomiting.

The Sun reported, "The powder proved to be oxalic acid."  Wittenbrink was arrested "for selling poison for Rochelle salts."  In court he said, "that the clerk had gone out for ten minutes only, and had asked him to take charge in his absence.  He had thought the powder was salts, and had tasted it before giving it out."  The old man was held for trial, and, luckily "Mrs. Hackett is out of danger," said the newspaper.

The estate of Francis Caragher sold the "three-story brick store building," as described by the Real Estate Record & Guide, in April 1898.  The building would undergo a series of owners throughout the succeeding decades.  When the Bank of New York sold it in October 1939 to Gustave and Julia J. Meyers, it appeared that it was in danger.  The New York Sun said it was purchased "for improvement," a term which most often involved demolition.  But instead the couple renovated the store for the Gustave Meyers Luncheonette.  

The sign in the window in 1941 announced "Sandwich Shop."  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Albert Gazzola purchased the building in 1948, adding the electric sign out front and opening his Blue Star Luncheonette.  It may also have been Gazzolo who altered the attic, replacing the 1829 dormers with a nearly full-width "studio dormer."  

While the luncheonette continued on the ground floor, in 1971 Warren S. Creswell, Jr. and Ron Link purchased the building.  Born in Columbus, Ohio, Link began his theater career in the 1920's as a stage manager.  He worked on the original productions of Little Mary Sunshine, and The Fantasticks before becoming a director.  An innovator of Off Broadway theater, he was noted for discovering new talent--including Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.  He moved to Los Angeles in 1983.

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Around 1995 the shopfront was bricked over, leaving a small window.  The original entrance retains its early 19th century flavor with its surviving door surround and thin, graceful columns. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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