Thursday, December 16, 2021

From Carriage Factory to Trendy Club - 60-62 Downing Street (222-224 West Houston Street)


The owner of the livery stable at 62 Downing Street was in financial trouble in 1873 and lost his property in foreclosure.  On September 18 a "mortgage sale" was held of "a large number of very valuable Horses, Clarences, open and closed Coaches, light and road Wagons, Hearses, Phaetons, double and single Harness, Blankets, Whips, Stable Fixtures, &c." according to the listing.  Directly behind the stable was the Hammersley Foundry.  (West Houston Street had been called Hammersley Street prior to 1860.)

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, 1875 (copyright expired)

In 1877 John Nichol sold both properties to David I. Christie and Charles H. See for the equivalent of $120,000 in today's money.  The Downing Street building was three stories tall, while the former foundry building was just one.  Neither of the brick-faced structures aspired to architectural significance, their builders content to create utilitarian structures.  Christie and See joined the two disparate buildings internally.  

It appears they operated the combined buildings as a stable.  On May 2, 1886 Christie advertised in the New York Herald:

For Sale--A sidebar top buggy, Brewster make; single set harness, three blankets, three lap robes, all as good as new; also a good work horse.  Inquire of D. E. Christie, No. 224 West Houston St.

The sale may have been prompted by the men's having leased the property to Daniel H. Johnson that year.  He converted it to a wagon factory.  

In the 1890's the neighborhood was filling with Italian immigrants and Blacks.  By 1896 a portion the building was home to the Unique Club, a gathering spot for local Blacks.  Its proprietor, Thomas Jones, described it as "a regularly organized club," meaning that it was a legitimate social club.  Whether the it was strictly "regular" is debatable.  But either way, Detective John J. Gerrity saw potential profit.  He demanded $20 per month for police "protection."

Trouble came in February when Gerrity pressured Jones for $5 more per month, threatening to shut the club down.  Jones refused and then reported Gerrity's threats to the captain of detectives at the police station.  But, according to The Sun, he "heard nothing more of it."  Then, on Saturday night, February 27, the Unique Club was raided, and 13 men were arrested and charged with gambling.  

In court, Jones told the judge of Gerrity's extortion.  On March 1, 1897, The Sun reported that the judge asked why "he paid for police protection if the club was regularly organized and the law was not violated."  Jones explained that he did it "to avoid trouble as he knew that other clubs had had trouble through stool-pigeons sent in by the police, who would swear to anything asked of them."  Considering racial bias rampant within the police force at the time, Jones made a valid point.

Judge Simms considered the charges against Gerrity "very serious."  He discharged the other 12 men, but held Jones for trial for operating a gambling house (Gerrity had provided a "stool-pigeon," exactly as Jones had feared.)  Nevertheless, the judge urged Jones "to report his story of Gerrity to the officials at Police Headquarters," as reported by the New York Herald.  "Jones said he would certainly visit [Police Commissioner Theodore] Roosevelt."  

Robert Christie sold the property to the Enarem Realty Corporation in 1927.  On October 28, The New York Evening Post remarked that it had been in the Christie family "for nearly fifty years," adding, "It is occupied by [an] old three-story building."  The following year, in December, the new owners leased the buildings to the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, Inc. for $6,000 per year (closer to $91,000 today).

A renovation completed the following year resulted in a "garage for more than five automobiles."  It was possibly at this time that the upper floors of the Downing Street building were removed.  It became one of the firm's New York Firestone Service Stores.

The renovations done by Firestone did not extend to exterior charm.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In June 1933, Harvey Firestone described the service stores to The New York Sun.  "One of the most important things in the eyes of the motor car owner today is the element of time...It annoys car owners to make many stops for service.  As a result, Firestone has established its system of one-stop service store, equipping them with highly efficient machinery to give the car owner the best of service quickly and economically."  He said that only "factory trained experts are employed" in the stores.

The Firestone store occupied the building for decades.  It had become the King Bear Auto Service Center by 1981.  But the changing in the neighborhood resulting in a renovation in 2003 for an "eating and drinking establishment."  

On February 27, 2013 Brian Sloan, writing in The New York Times, reported, "There's a new beer hall in town and, surprise, it's actually in Manhattan.  You'd think it would be tough to fit one into the bourgeois West Village, but the owners of Heartland Brewery have done just that, repurposing a parking garage...into a fine de siècle themed drinking parlor for up to 500 people."  Sloan called Houston Hall "Disney does Five Points," saying "it almost feels like a Hollywood backlot version of Tammany-era new York, with rusticated brick walls, meticulously faded old-timey signage and period props galore."

The rather bedraggled appearance of the two structures testifies to their unglamorous history.

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